How Pit Stop found a country sound in the middle of the Twin Cities
By Joel Swenson and Lucy Hawthorne | The Current
Pit Stop played their first show in south Minneapolis on March 6, 2020. We all know what happened next. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered venues, and the new normal was anything but.
Things being what they were, the Minneapolis country outfit’s first show was also their last for nearly a year and a half. For plenty of other bands, that would’ve spelled the end. But not Pit Stop.
“The fact that that first show happened is the entire reason we're still a band,” recalls Pit Stop co-vocalist and guitarist Jake Balistrieri. “It gave us the momentum and hope to keep going. Otherwise, I don't know that we'd all be here today, really. This whole thing might have just fizzled out.”
It’s a blustery cold day shortly before Christmas. Balistrieri, fellow vocalist and guitarist Sarah Mevvisen, guitarist James Patrick “Pat” Horigan, bassist Zack Warpinski, and drummer Gage Webster are gathered in the band’s northeast Minneapolis practice space. They’re reflecting back on their first few years as a band beginning with that first uncertain show in the back room at Eagles #34.
MPR News is Member Supported
What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.
“I had just been out on tour with another band, and we noticed these changes while on the road. We were like, oh, this is about to be a really big deal,” recalls Webster.
He remembers the paranoia that set in around COVID-19 as the tour progressed. Fast food and gas station stops included more rigorous hand-washing, and there was worry about sitting too close to one another in the already cramped van.
“It was super stressful, and we didn't even know if the Pit Stop show would happen at all.”
“All things considered, that first show did go extremely well, though,” adds Balistrieri. “And after the initial month or two of not seeing each other at all, we eventually became each other's COVID pod and started writing and practicing some more.”
All that writing and practicing paid off.
Pit Stop recorded their debut self-titled album in the spring of 2021 with Zach Hollander at the Pearl Recording Studio just down the road from their practice space. Blending elements of country, folk, Americana, rock, and a hint of doo-wop, the album’s distinct sound stands out even amongst the densely crowded landscape of country music’s recent revival.
Warpiniski and Webster’s rhythm section lays a rock-solid foundation while Horigan rips head-turning guitar leads. With lines like “I’m no good at being good, but I'm good at being alone,” and “Was I on purpose, or was I just a pit stop along the way?” Mevvisen and Balistrieri perfectly meld clever humor with self-depricating heartache. Their undeniable vocal chemistry and impressive harmonies are reminiscent of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Those harmonies are a key component of Pit Stop’s sound.
“When Sarah and I started talking about this band, I sent her a demo I recorded on my phone,” says Balistrieri. “She just practiced it a little, and the first time we played it together, the harmony was perfect. Her ability to pinpoint those harmonies is the reason we were able to make it such a consistent thing.”
Mevvisen and Balistrieri first began playing together with the intention of starting a punk band. The duo wrote and recorded a song before Mevvisen had to bow out for an extended period abroad to finish her master’s degree. In the meantime, Balistrieri began jamming with an early lineup of what would eventually become Pit Stop.
“Pat had just gotten a pedal steel, and I had a few country songs lined up from a previous project,” he recalls. “It was just the two of us at first. Then when Sarah got back, we all started playing together. Pat, Zack, and Gage have all known each other for a long time, so eventually, it all just came together.”
The music world at large has embraced a country music resurgence in the last few years, with artists like Orville Peck, Charley Crockett, Yola, and Amanda Shires appealing to newer, more diverse fanbases. Still, with many of their previous bands and projects falling into indie rock and punk, the choice to lean so heavily into country may seem a bit out of left field.
“Well, that’s kind of the new stereotype,” laughs Horigan. “The metalhead or punk that hangs up the leather jacket, picks up a cowboy hat, and goes country. It's a real pipeline for sure.”
So why go country? For Pit Stop, the appeal was about getting outside their comfort zone and challenging themselves with something new and different, albeit without the cowboy hats (“We’re in one of the northern-most states, and none of us are even from rural areas.”)
“I was in an indie rock band for a long time in Milwaukee, and I just kind of exhausted that form of songwriting,” adds Balistrieri. “It never really felt genuine to me, but I started listening to a lot of country, and it just felt like a truer vehicle for songwriting. I found I could do so much more with it.”
As for Horigan, he says he got into country music in college when a quest to add new styles of playing guitar led him to the likes of Chet Atkins.
But that’s not to say that Pit Stop has abandoned their punk and indie roots for twangier pastures entirely. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“We really use country as a means to hone in all our different influences,” says Balistrieri. “We’ve all been playing and listening to stuff that isn't country our whole lives. So it's more like, what do we bring to country? It's taking the more rock or punk-oriented things we listen to and trying to put the country filter on them.”
“From being in this band, I've been exposed to a lot of artists like Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers,” adds Mevissen. “But at the same time, I've still been listening to and discovering other bands outside of country like Magazine and the Stranglers, plus some ‘60s psychedelic folk like Fairport Convention and Trees.”
“All I've been listening to lately is Christmas music and Meshuggah,” adds Webster.
Pit Stop is currently putting all those varied influences to use in writing their sophomore album. This time around, the process looks much different. Since they wrote and recorded Pit Stop during the peak of the pandemic, they couldn’t test out any songs in a live setting. No crowd response. No feedback. Just intuition.
“With the first album, we were still finding and developing our sound,” says Mevissen. “Plus country was new to everybody, so we were all kind of feeling our way there.”
That’s no longer the case. They now have a well-defined sound and a much deeper familiarity with country music. And as for the shows? They’ve more than made up for lost time. Since their album release show in November 2021, Pit Stop have played stages all over the Twin Cities, from the Art Box shanty at last year’s Art Shanties Project to the Kare 11 booth at the Minnesota State Fair. The former even had a crowd of dancers two-stepping in their very best snowsuits. Other gigs include a run of shows in Wisconsin and a stop at Chase Bliss Audio to film a video showcase for Drifter Music Group.
By far the most memorable of those shows was the opportunity to play the First Avenue main stage opening for Niger’s Tuareg guitarist and songwriter Mdou Moctar and punk-rock legends Parquet Courts. That show was almost exactly two years to the day after their first show.
“It's so interesting being a band that formed pre-covid but then didn't really have a chance to do anything for a year-and-a-half,” notes Warpinski. “We had all that time to work stuff out and get a set together and prepare instead of figuring things out as we were writing.”
“All that time led to a lot of pent-up energy,” adds Webster. “So when we were actually able to start playing shows, it became ‘let’s go, go, go. Let’s play as many shows as we can't really quick.’”
That pent-up energy extends to Pit Stop’s performances as well and it’s very apparent that they all love being onstage together — finally. The band’s pep and charisma often inspire two-stepping and the occasional line dance to break out among the fully-engaged crowd. And, of course, Mevissen and Balistrieri’s harmonies are perfectly in sync.
Pit Stop has begun testing the waters with some new material at more recent shows.
“I think the new songs we’re writing really show a different side of the band in a very cool way,” says Webster. “But being able to gauge the audience's reaction to them is huge.”
With a new record on the horizon, Pit Stop is showing no signs of slowing down. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they plan to hit the road on lengthy tours anytime soon. Instead, they’re focused on helping build up the local Twin Cities and regional scenes.
“We'd love to do longer touring eventually,” says Warpinski. “But at this point, there are so many places to play within a four or five-hour drive that it's just more important to us to figure that out instead.”
“Plus, the local scene has been so awesome,” adds Mevissen. “With our community here and the response they’ve given us, we’re just really glad to make connections and build relationships locally.”
Catch Pit Stop opening up for the Cactus Blossoms at the Turf Club on January 23. Their debut self-titled album is available on their Bandcamp, along with their delicious hot sauce: Pit Stop’s Hot Slop. (Pick some up. It’s great on eggs!)