Back in June, Luke Combs posted a photo to Instagram of himself wearing a T-shirt for the band 49 Winchester. It was a mark of validation for the Castlewood, Virginia, group, a sign that their brand of country, folk, and soul was breaking through and finding fans — including one who just happened to be the biggest star in country music.
But a little more than two years earlier, 49 Winchester were just a bunch of scruffy Southern Appalachian musicians hoping to gain traction on the musical road to somewhere, anywhere. At their shows in early 2020, there were sometimes more folks onstage than in the audience. Even last year, when the six-piece played the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on the Tennessee-Virginia border, a modest crowd showed up in a field. This year, however, they drew the biggest of the weekend, with an estimated 5,000 fans jampacked onto Bristol’s State Street.
“We’re almost in a state of shock at how fast things have started to grow,” Isaac Gibson, 49 Winchester’s lead singer and guitarist, told Rolling Stone earlier this summer after a sweaty set at FloydFest in Virginia. “We’re seeing thousands of people at our shows now. You can let it all be overwhelming. But you also got to step back and say, ‘I get to go out here and literally play my songs for a living.’”
Along with the triumphant Bristol and FloydFest gigs this year, 49 Winchester have opened for Turnpike Troubadours at the Ryman Auditorium, hit the road with Whiskey Myers, made their Grand Ole Opry debut, and released their major-label album, Fortune Favors the Bold, via New West Records in May. This week, they enter AmericanaFest, the annual roots-music conference in Nashville, as one of the festival’s most anticipated live acts: They’ll play the SiriusXM Outlaw Country party at Robert’s Western World on Thursday, headline Exit/In (the club they name-check in the breakup ballad “Damn Darlin’”) on Friday night, and take to the rooftop of the Westin Hotel on Saturday afternoon.
“We focus on one show at a time,” Gibson says. “We don’t look back at the past and we don’t look towards the future. It’s about today, going out there and kicking ass for however many people showed up to see us.”
Suffice it to say, 49 Winchester — Gibson, bassist Chase Chafin, keyboarist Tim Hall, drummer Justin Louthian, lead guitarist Brandon “Bus” Shelton, and pedal-steel player Noah Patrick — are kicking a lot of ass.
Lyrically and sonically, the band hangs out somewhere near the intersection of Chris Stapleton and Drive-By Truckers. Along with the razor-sharp guitar licks and honky-tonk swagger that are at the group’s core, Gibson possesses a chill-inducing howl that’s not far off from Stapleton’s. His songwriting, meanwhile, can pivot nimbly between the everyday (in “All I Need,” he’s thankful for a life on the road and a “dog that don’t shit in the house”) and the philosophical (“Man’s Best Friend,” ironically not about a dog, details the push and pull between whiskey and religion).
“I want people to feel the same emotion that I feel when I write a song,” Gibson says. “There’s a catharsis, this closure that comes.”
Sandwiched between the mountainous state lines of Kentucky and Tennessee in southwestern Virginia, Castlewood (pop.: 2,045) and greater Russell County is a decidedly blue-collar area. Long gone coal mines, generational poverty, and limited job opportunities offer a bleak outlook for anyone trying to make a life within the hardscrabble surroundings. It’s why Gibson gravitated toward the guitar, his tool to escape.
“Music was the vehicle to get out and do whatever we wanted to do,” Gibson, 28, says. “We come from a place where if you don’t work your ass off, you’re never going to have anything. There’s not a whole lot of silver spoons given out in Appalachia.”
Formed right out of high school when its members were just teenagers, 49 Winchester took their name from the address of Gibson’s childhood home. It’s the same spot where he and his bass-playing best friend Chafin would get together with other Castlewood kids to jam. Soon they cemented a lineup and hit the road in Southern Appalachia, canvassing the area to cultivate a following with songs that were steeped in Virginia geography. “We knew we had to get well-established at home,” Gibson says. “We wanted that local support.”
At FloydFest 2021, it was clear the approach paid off. The band signed their record deal with New West at FloydFest that year and went on to win the festival’s “On the Rise” competition, an honor that afforded them an invitation to play on the main stage at the 2022 festival this past July. But there was little time to savor the moment: As soon as the last notes rang out, the band began packing up their gear to drive to Nashville for their Ryman gig with Turnpike Troubadours.
“Our only goal is constant advancement, all the time,” Gibson says. “Keep the snowball rolling. We’ve got to hold onto this thing for dear life.”