When Greg Payne & the Piedmont Boys first got together in Greenville in 2007, they probably anticipated a long, slow crawl toward their modest goal of packing out local bars and clubs. What they got was something entirely different. "We started out playing Smoke on The Water in downtown Greenville every Thursday," Payne says, "and it seemed like, starting two or three weeks in, we had a really big crowd. And it was basically from word of mouth."
But the Piedmont Boys' live show is designed to create that kind of reaction. Their music is an addictive combination of rock muscle, speedy bluegrass picking, and pure honky-tonk twang. On stage, the band builds their shows to frenzied peaks of both pickin' and grinnin'. Their boozy, ragged brand of country music has been classified under the increasingly meaningless Americana umbrella, and they've also occasionally been labeled alt-country, but to Payne, neither of those genres is an accurate description.
"I think we're playing a style of music that isn't necessarily new," he says. "It's more of the Texas-style, '60s and '70s country — Willie and Waylon and all that. And that was fresh to the people we played for. They'd never heard it before, even though it had been around for years. We were coming out of this period where all the musicians that people were hearing in the bars were covering '90s rock tunes. So I think we were just really refreshing."
Singer and guitarist Payne plays alongside long-time bassist Chief Spires, lead guitarist Stuart McConnell, fiddle player Matt Parks, and drummer Colt Strickland, and he says his bandmates are talented and versatile enough that he doesn't have to plan out their incendiary live shows. "I think out of the nine years we've been doing this, I've written maybe 10 set lists," he says. "What I've always done is feel out the crowd and try to read them. We feed off that energy. If we start out a show and the crowd's into it and right up on the stage, then we kind of start out that way. If we go to a show and the crowd's a little laid back, we start off slow and build as the night goes on. We probably know 100 songs as a band, so every show is different. The band doesn't know what's coming, but they're such good musicians that they can just jump right in there."
That kind of live firepower has inspired a devoted following, but their four albums have gotten them nowhere on country radio. And that's just fine with them. "A lot of people that hear the word 'country' nowadays are thinking about the pop country that they hear on the radio," he says. "And I think that's why we've ventured over to the outlaw style or alt-country and gotten identified with those labels, because we're definitely not like what's on the radio."
But Payne puts a positive spin on the Piedmont Boys' current career regardless of the radio blackout, pointing out that they've recently signed their first-ever contract with a national talent management company (Sweetwine Entertainment Group), and that their most recent album, Scars & Bars, is being marketed toward a recently discovered fanbase in Europe. "Things come full circle," he says. "Right now, the majority of real country fans are so sick of what they're hearing on the radio that they're starting to go back to those older styles. It's crazy to me that the style of music we play, with the fiddle and guitars, it's crazy that Nashville won't look our way. And that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that. We're not trying to go that route, but it's funny to me that we're playing a traditional style of music that's not considered 'country' in the pop people's minds."
In fact, there's a common refrain that Payne says he's been hearing at least once a week since the band formed in 2007: "I don't like country music, but I like you guys."
"I think the average person working a regular job, the music they hear is on their way to work and back," he says. "And I think that you've got a handful of guys in Nashville that are the songwriters, and these artists are coming up and their companies are telling them, 'Pick from these songs,' and they're all the same songs. They're all about the same things: A dirt road, a tractor, the same thing over and over. And I guess Nashville's thinking is: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. They're selling a ton of music, somehow. But at the same time, they're making a lot of people upset. So when people see us, I think they realize that they don't like what they hear on the radio, because it doesn't sound like country. It makes me think that real country music is alive and well, and it's starting to come back out."