The Long Shot: Nathaniel Rateliff's Hard, Booze-Soaked Road to Rock-Soul Stardom

Rateliff and the Night Sweats went from local Denver heroes to perhaps the most improbable breakout of the past decade – and they're not slowing down

Nathaniel Rateliff reflects on his band the Night Sweats' rise from local Denver heroes to perhaps the most improbable breakout of the past decade. Credit: James Minchin III for Rolling Stone

One day in the summer of 2015, Jimmy Fallon, the host of The Tonight Show, received an e-mail from a close friend, Corbin Day. "Check out this video," Day wrote. "He should be on the show." There was a link to a YouTube clip by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, an eight-piece band unknown outside Denver. "Everybody has an idea of how to make the show better, who I should have on," Fallon says, laughing. Nevertheless, he watched the video: a live performance of an explosive R&B song called "S.O.B.," short for "Son of a Bitch." Fallon's immediate reaction: "This dude is insane. Where was this? Why wasn't I there?"

That clip, still on YouTube, was shot on an iPhone from the side of the stage in November 2013 at one of Rateliff’s early gigs with the Night Sweats. He belts the chorus – "Son of a bitch, gimme a drink!" – like an enraged Van Morrison armed with a wall of horns, atop a Ray Charles-style charge. At one point, the singer, a barrel-chested man with a thick brown beard, does a nimble James Brown-like swivel on the tips of his shoes. "That was," Fallon says, "the last thing that sold me: 'This has to be on television.'"

On August 5th, 2015, Rateliff and the Night Sweats played "S.O.B." on The Tonight Show – two weeks before their debut album, including that song, was released. Backstage, getting his makeup, Rateliff worried about living up to Fallon's enthusiasm. During the taping, the host "kept putting the record on his desk," the singer recalls, "cutting off his guests: 'You gotta check this out.'"

"But by the time we got onstage, I wasn't thinking about playing to millions of people," Rateliff says. "It was this tiny room. I thought, 'We've got one song. Let's tear it up.' I remember seeing Jimmy over there, freaking out." The studio audience responded with a standing ovation. The next day, Fallon got a phone call from Paul McCartney, who saw the broadcast and wanted to know, "Who was that guy? That was fantastic."

A month later, Rateliff was in a meeting at his record label when, he says, "one guy who does statistics said, 'You really fucked my job. TV supposedly doesn't sell records. You've just changed everything.'"

It may be the most improbable breakout of this viral-pop-star decade: a white classic-soul band led by a burly middle-aged singer. In the wake of "S.O.B.," Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats went gold in the U.S. as the band toured relentlessly, playing 246 shows in 16 countries just by the end of 2016. Rateliff, bassist Joseph Pope III, drummer Patrick Meese, guitarist Luke Mossman, keyboard player Mark Shusterman, trumpeter Scott Frock, and saxophonists Jeff Dazey and Andreas Wild are back on the road with a new album, Tearing at the Seams, which has already produced a Number One hit on adult-alternative radio, "You Worry Me." "I would have fucked it up if I had been younger," Rateliff, 39, says over a Scotch and water in a Denver restaurant. "When you're 20, you don't know what the fuck you're doing. I'm almost 40, and I'm still figuring shit out."

Rateliff has lived in this city for two decades and been a local hero for most of them, with various bands and as a solo singer-songwriter. When he launched the Night Sweats in 2013, "I wanted to write like the Band and Sam and Dave had a band together," Rateliff says. It was his turning point.

"We were so ready for something to happen in our lives," says Pope, Rateliff's best friend and sidekick in every group they've had since they were teenagers in Hermann, Missouri, a small town about 80 miles west of St. Louis. "Even before we did Fallon, we knew this band was going to change the course of our lives. I remember having a conversation with my wife: 'Baby, I gotta see this thing through. If I don't, you’re not gonna want to be with me anyway.'"

Rateliff and Pope took the hard, winding road out of Hermann. The singer was raised in an evangelical-Christian household and played drums in church in a band with his parents, Bud and Sandy, and his older sister Heather. Nathaniel was 13 when Bud was killed in a car accident on his way to a service. Nathaniel soon quit school, getting by with menial jobs. For a time, he was a janitor in the high school where he should have been in class.

Pope came from a religious home with outlaw roots; an uncle, he claims, was an expert safecracker. The two friends moved to Denver in 1998, turning to music in earnest while working at the same trucking company to stay afloat. Rateliff made three albums as an indie-folk singer with a quietly forceful voice and fearless confessional streak. But by the last one, 2013’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run, he was ready to quit the rock life for his day gig at the time.

"I remember him saying, 'I'm thinking of going back to gardening,' " says Chris Tetzeli, Rateliff's manager. "He had pounded it so hard." But Tetzeli soon heard Rateliff's next set of demos. They included the hearty stomp "Trying So Hard Not to Know" and the Memphis-soul stew "Look It Here," both eventually cut for Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. "It wasn't like anything he did before was put-on," says Pope. "But this was more guttural, more him."

Rateliff traces that breakthrough to his father's record collection: albums by Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and the Allman Brothers Band that Bud – "a roughneck hippie" before his Christian conversion – kept hidden and then left behind when he died. Listening to them "was a way to build a relationship with him after he passed," Nathaniel says. He notes that "one of the ways I got comfortable with my voice was singing along to early Bob Marley and Sam Cooke." But until the Night Sweats, "I couldn't figure out how to write soul and R&B songs that were genuine to me."

"S.O.B.," the song that blew Fallon's mind, was pure autobiography, written about a bad patch in Rateliff's marriage. He was drinking heavily; he quit alcohol entirely for a time to make amends with his wife, Jules, but suffered delirium tremens from withdrawal. "I was talking about my relationship," Rateliff admits, while the gospel-party arrangement was "making light of what 'S.O.B.' was about."

That duality runs through Tearing at the Seams. The couple are going through a divorce, and the blues waltz "Babe I Know" and the melancholy shuffle "Still Out There Running" are among the songs drawn from the end of their 11-year relationship. At the session for "Tearing at the Seams," sung by Rateliff in a single torrid take, Pope broke into tears. "He had some open wounds coming in," Richard Swift, the album's producer, says of Rateliff. "You can hear it in his voice."

Pride and poise are there too as Rateliff and the Night Sweats rehearse one afternoon at Pope's small home studio in Denver. Rateliff, sporting his trademark fedora with the upturned brim, leads the group through a cover of the Band's "Ophelia." But the vibe is more like a garage-band spin on an Al Green session. Vintage electric keyboards, hearty backbeats and earthy brass evoke Seventies-soul values in new songs about love breaking down and crawling forward. When Rateliff hits the bellowing finish in "Tearing at the Seams," he does it with his eyes shut tight in concentrated honesty and wounded hope. 

"I always knew I had a strong voice," he says during a break. "Now what I'm doing is actually me."

Pope can tell you exactly when he knew that he would play music with Rateliff for the rest of their lives. They were both working at a Subway sandwich shop in Hermann, handling the closing shift on alternate nights. "If I was on duty, he was there hanging out," Pope says. "If he was working, I was hanging out."

One evening, Rateliff came to keep his pal company. He had an acoustic guitar and was not wearing shoes. Rateliff played an original song for Pope – a first in their friendship. "I was standing by the Gatorade cooler," Pope remembers. "I felt like God had grabbed me and said, 'You have to help this dude because what he has been given is way too much for him to handle on his own.' " From that moment, "there has never been any question of us not doing this together."

Rateliff describes Hermann as "the middle of nowhere. We always joked about embracing the boredom." But there is fondness in the barb. Asked where Hermann is on the map, he rolls up a sleeve of his denim jacket and points to a spot on his left arm – inside a tattoo of the Missouri state lines.

Bud Rateliff struggled to support his family as a carpenter, making $8,000 "in his best year," says his son. (Bud's real name was Cecil Clement Rateliff, but he would "kick your ass," Nathaniel says, if you used it.) To supplement her husband's income, Sandy worked at a leather company and a tent factory. After Bud died and Nathaniel left school, mother and son had jobs at the same grocery store. When Sandy remarried and moved to Texas, Nathaniel stayed behind, living with Pope's family for two years.

The boys were so tight that Rateliff was "my date to the prom," Pope says with a straight face. "The first time I got drunk was with him. The first time I had sex, he was in the other room." Rateliff was there for Pope when the bassist was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2002. The singer helped nurse his friend through treatment. When Pope started losing his hair from the chemotherapy, Rateliff shaved his head in solidarity.

Rateliff is an exuberant, unguarded storyteller, sharing personal details in conversation as openly as he does in his songs. He had based "You Should Have Seen the Other Guy," a song on his 2010 album, In Memory of Loss, on a great-grandfather who supposedly got blind-drunk his own moonshine and fell asleep under a tree, freezing to death. When Rateliff showed the song to an aunt, she corrected him: Her dad – Nathaniel's grandfather – would drink too much of his brew and pass out in the snow. Rateliff's great-grandfather died from a bullet during an altercation with a bootlegger. "I had to change the song," Rateliff says, still awed by that story. "I just thought he was a drunk loser."

Rateliff is frank about the price of choices he made on the way to success. At the trucking company, he never rose further than the loading dock because he lacked a high school diploma. As for drinking, compared to the depths recalled in "S.O.B.," he's seen wisdom in moderation. In fact, he swore off alcohol completely for the final sessions of Tearing at the Seams. "He and I agreed we were going to be sober," Swift says. "Dudes that were not having an issue stood by Nathaniel: 'Cool, no drinks.' "

Rateliff does not live like a star. He's been staying in his drummer's basement while waiting for his divorce settlement, resisting Pope's suggestion he buy a property near the bassist's house. Instead, Rateliff purchased a home for his mother, who moved back to Hermann, and started a foundation, the Marigold Project, to address issues such as the plight of homeless military veterans in the city. "People become rock stars, and they forget where their community is," Rateliff says. "I love Denver – it's part of my family. They've supported us through every little style we tried to do. I'm not going to move to L.A. or New York. We're Denver's band."

But Rateliff and the Night Sweats are always welcome at The Tonight Show. "He can play anytime he wants," Fallon says. "He has the invite for the rest of his life."