Joshua Fleming never expected to live this long. Self-medicating with a cocktail of drugs in his early twenties, bouncing between jobs and playing in punk bands, he was hell-bent on burning out instead of fading away. So it’s not so surprising that the Vandoliers front man should be so pleased about finally playing the long game, with a new record contract in hand and his band’s third LP, Forever, now on the books.
“My goal was to die at 27 from, like, age 12. I just thought that was the end and it was fine,” says Fleming, sipping a cup of coffee one morning in Dallas, Texas. He gives a gruff, shrugging laugh, his eyes beaming. “But now I’m 30 and I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I think 30 is great.”
The turnaround has been a lengthy process for Fleming, who sums up the journey in “Sixteen Years,” one of Forever‘s standouts (“It took a hundred thousand miles for sixteen years,” he sings.) This time last year, the group was between record contracts when Fleming got a call from Bloodshot Records about joining their South by Southwest showcase. That gig led to the Fort Worth cowpunks joining the Chicago label’s roster and cutting the 10-song Forever in Memphis — as well as a new group tattoo to commemorate the occasion.
Going all-in has been part of the Vandoliers’ playbook from the beginning: They’d only played 10 shows together when they got their first tattoos in 2015. Fleming takes off his jean jacket to show his along his left forearm, including a bluebonnet in honor of making it on the Americana album chart. The first of the batch, “VFFV,” was inspired by one of Fleming’s favorite bands, the Riverboat Gamblers, and was the basis for Forever‘s title: Vandoliers Forever, Forever Vandoliers.
“I didn’t want [the Vandoliers] to be family, I didn’t want us to be brothers because brothers fight. I want us to be a gang, I want us to feel secure, I want us to feel protected,” Fleming says of the group, which numbers six strong, including violin and trumpet players. “What I wanted was a gang of people who would sacrifice anything for each other, sacrifice anything for the band, just to go out and fucking do it because we thought it was special enough.”
Growing up in a working-class family in a suburb of Fort Worth, Fleming started playing music when he was 12, but without having the grades to go to college he fell into a steady spiral while kicking around the local music scene. By 2014, his last band, the Phuss, had fizzled out. “I think I’ve tried everything twice at this point,” Fleming says about his drug intake. “The coke and the speed were catching up. I was maybe a buck-25 in weight.”
Meeting his now-wife Lindsey was the turning point, not only helping Fleming to clean up but also to change his musical direction. “I started writing her love songs. She had this beat-up acoustic, an Epiphone with a bridge that was warped, but I could get it into tune,” he says. “I knew she liked country music, so I just started writing really simple songs for her.”
“Every Ramones song could be a George Strait song because neither of them write bridges.”
One of those songs, “Bottom Dollar Boy” — a fuck-up’s anthem that encapsulates Fleming’s heart-on-sleeve storytelling — was released on Vandoliers’ first album, Ameri-Kinda, but re-recorded for Forever. Though he’d grown up on punk acts like NOFX and Bad Religion, he found country songwriting to be a more natural fit. “I was trying to tell these stories but I had to be so aggressive. I couldn’t figure it out,” he says of his previous bands. “[But] your favorite punk song in the world could make a great country song. Every Ramones song could be a George Strait song because neither of them write bridges.”
Not that country music was a foreign concept to Fleming. His dad, who gets his own tribute on the song “Tumbleweed,” had turned him onto it at a young age, and he recalls thinking Bob Wills’ “Big Balls in Cow Town” was “the funniest song in the world.” If anything, his footloose style falls somewhere between a Jerry Jeff Walker and a Paul Westerberg. “I didn’t have the ability to travel [growing up]. I always wanted to but never really had a ticket out; I was just stuck in my hometown,” he says. “Music had always been my idea of a ticket out of here, and the way country music describes that adventure is just so cool to me. I loved it.”
Fleming splits songwriting duties on Forever with trumpet and keys player Cory Graves, with whom he cowrote “Nowhere Fast,” but the big-name collaboration is with Rhett Miller on “Fallen Again.” “Everyone calls Rhett when they’re sad,” Fleming says with another laugh, referring to the fact that the song deals explicitly with his own battles with depression and anxiety. While he was writing the new material, Fleming sent Miller his demos on a weekly basis. “After two months, he sends back this giant essay about all my songs with notes and ideas — some things he loved, some things he thought could be better. I learned a lot about songwriting in general from that,” he says.
The finished product is a fist-pumping celebration befitting someone who’s just happy to be here, an upbeat and irrepressible crossover of styles that’s more ska-meets-Tex-Mex than pure cowpunk (one that the band will bring back to South by Southwest stages next week in Austin). And though Fleming learned plenty of lessons from Miller, he finally feels comfortable revealing his blemishes in the music.
“I don’t feel the need to sugarcoat something or mask it with a metaphor. I’ll just say it, for better or for worse with my writing. I’m sure I’d be a better writer if I could doll it up,” says Fleming. “Some of [my writing] I know is cliche, but I just like singing it, so I’m gonna keep it.”