One year ago, Sadler Vaden was super busy with studio and road work with his longtime rock trio Leslie. As the long-haired, bright-eyed frontman and main spokesman for the band, Vaden and Leslie were practically synonymous. But these days, when the guitarist and songwriter talks about his band, he's referring to veteran rock group Drivin' N Cryin'. It's weird to hear him say "we" and it not mean the rock band with drummer Jonathan Carman, and bassist Jason Fox.
"Things have been particularly busy for us this season," Vaden says, speaking of Drivin' N Cryin'. "We just had a great run of Memphis, Nashville, and Athens, where we played at the new Georgia Theatre to a slam-packed room, which was a blast and an honor for me. The whole experience has been a good feeling."
Much to the surprise of many local fans and supporters, Leslie disbanded this past August due to personal and creative differences. Leslie had released a much-anticipated studio album titled Lord, Have Mercy, which the band released in April.
As news of Leslie's breakup hit the Charleston scene, Vaden packed his gear and relocated to Nashville, where he started collaborating with a handful of musicians and friends on a variety of rock, soul, and Americana projects.
In early September, Vaden began regularly filling in as the lead guitarist with Drivin' N Cryin' alongside guitarist/singer and main songwriter Kevn Kinney, longtime bassist Tim Nielsen, and drummer Dave Johnson.
"I got a call from Tim one day, asking me for a ride to Asheville," Vaden says. "He told me to bring my guitar and amp so I could sit in. I played the last half of the show. Afterward, Kevn said, 'Hey man, what are you doing the rest of the week? We're heading up to New York.' So I ended up jumpin' in the van and going."
Vaden barely had a chance to learn many of Drivin' N Cryin's songs before hitting the road with them. There were no late-night rehearsals or headphone sessions with old recordings. No time for any it. The band simply enlisted him as lead guitarist on the eve of one if their fall road trips with no worries at all.
"I was literally learning new songs on stage," Vaden laughs. "That's how it worked. Luckily, I'm a fan of the band and I already knew a lot of their songs, but not all of them. Kevn never writes a setlist before a show, so that's a cool and challenging thing."
Vaden mostly learned on the fly, on stage, during the sets, night after night. Two months into his new duties, he's still learning. According to him and his new bandmates, everything's cool.
Nielsen was very impressed with Vaden's quick transformation from new-guy guitarist to fully fledged bandmate. "Sadler does his homework, and he's got a good ear, too," he says. "It's a really great fit. His enthusiasm is just awesome. We've been having fun doing this for years, with five or six of us on the road, traveling around like family. With Sadler being in the band, it's even more fun. He's a joy to be around."
On Oct. 27, Drivin' N Cryin' posted an announcement on their web page declaring the installment of Vaden as an official member. "Sadler is one part guitarist-extraordinaire, one part talented songwriter, one part soulful singer, and two parts kick-ass," read the post. "Stay tuned for news about new D'N'C recordings with Sadler to be released soon."
Drivin' N' Cryin' have been laying down roots since they formed as a trio in Atlanta in 1986 and developed a reputation in the Southeastern club circuit for rockin' hard with a guitar-based sound. The band's most recent studio album, 2009's The Great American Bubble Factory (their first official studio album in 12 years) displayed more confidence and depth than much of their mid-period work.
Vaden replaced guitarist Mac Carter, a 10-year member of the band. According to Nielsen, Carter couldn't commit to some of the tours he and Kinney had planned for the late summer and fall. Carter quietly stepped aside just before Vaden officially joined.
"It's a recent thing and it's still not completely resolved emotionally for all of us," Nielsen says. "It just seemed like Mac wasn't having fun anymore. He'd been working for Apple on and off, and he'd been applying for another job that would have prevented him to tour. Kevn and I encouraged him to do what he wanted to do. From the outside looking in, this change might seem like a conspiracy or some sort of switcheroo, but it wasn't planned at all."
According to Vaden, the band has welcomed his musical input. He seems to be able to match the appropriate lead and rhythm parts to songs with ease, and there's room for his personal style as well.
"None of them have told me what to do, you know?" Vaden says. "The only thing Kevn has said was, 'Don't be afraid to chuck [a percussive, muted style of strumming] from time to time,' so I've mostly been on my own with the guitar parts."
Vaden's expressive fretwork features a Southern-tinged quality, so it naturally complements much of D'N'C's material, from the acoustic strummy stuff to the power-chord anthems.
"Somehow, it just worked out where we needed some new blood and he was available," Nielsen says. "We kind of tricked him into being in the band. He'd jammed with us before, and Leslie had opened for us a number of times, so we knew each other pretty well. I think he's enjoyed focusing on just being a musician in a band. He doesn't have to drive the van, handle the merchandise, or book and promote shows."
Vaden, for one, likes not having to be a bandleader or de-facto manager, and he's excited about the on-stage musical chemistry between him and his bandmates.
"I think I might bring a more organic sound to the stage," he says. "I enjoy not having to handle lead vocal duties for a change, too. I get to play guitar and sing backups a bit. I get to play with Kevn's songs, so that's really cool."
Vaden's love of live performance goes back to his teenage years. No matter the band or the style of music, connecting with musicians on stage is a skill that comes naturally to him.
"I kind of feel like I've gotten back to my roots when I was in high school, punk-rockin'," Vaden says. "I'm learning how to blend in, and I'm also learning how to just turn my brain off in the right way."
The current four-man D'N'C' formation ventured into Sonica Studios in Atlanta earlier this month and cut nine new songs. They plan to release four of them as an EP this winter, including an R.E.M. tribute (simply titled "R.E.M."), a 30-second punk tune, a heavy-rocker, and an anti-new country country song. A proper full-length is in the works for early 2012. Vaden's guitar work will be on all of the tracks.
"We're trying to write, tour, record, and work," Nielsen says. "We have fun doing this and we have a lot we want to do. With Sadler in the band, I think we're going do some great stuff."