LAST DECEMBER, EWAN CURRIE WAS SITTING IN A BAR in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, well on his way to extreme drunkenness. “Shit was bleak,” he says: After six and a half years together and countless touring treks across the vast Canadian landscape, his band, the Sheepdogs, was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and out of breaks. Just a month before, the Sheepdogs had been invited to a showcase of Canadian acts in front of some music publishers; the band had made the trip to Los Angeles, only to play a couple of songs to a listless crowd of industry types. “I was left with this feeling of hopelessness,” says Currie, the band’s singer. “I saw high school friends get jobs and get married and become adults, and I’m still pursuing this artistic dream where I have no money, no assets and a shitty car I can’t even afford to register.”
“It felt like nobody was paying any attention,” says bassist Ryan Gullen. “It was like, ‘What do we do now?'”
At that moment, Currie’s cellphone rang. It was Gullen, with some strange news: The Sheepdogs had just been hand-picked as one of the 16 unsigned groups eligible to compete in a North American battle of the bands. The Sheepdogs weren’t even aware that they’d entered the competition — a Canadian music manager they’d randomly met at a party in Toronto had submitted their demo. The winner, Currie learned, would be on the cover of ROLLING STONE and score a deal with Atlantic Records. “It was mysterious and surreal, but of course I was intrigued,” Currie says, sipping margaritas with his bandmates — Gullen, drummer Sam Corbett and guitarist Leot Hanson — at a burrito place in their remote hometown of Saskatoon. “I couldn’t make sense of it. I was so far away from the action in Los Angeles and Toronto and New York. I was like, ‘I’m here now in Moose Jaw, so far away from everything. How am I going to be there?'” Currie’s bandmates nod when he adds, “This contest was a life preserver for us. It got our juice back.”
Now, after more than 1.5 million votes cast and four intense rounds of competition, which included a performance at Bonnaroo and appearances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, these four longhaired and bearded Canadian dudes in their mid-twenties who worship Seventies-era rock, soul and blues — particularly if it hails from the southern U.S. — have emerged as the winners of the contest, and become the first unsigned band to appear on the cover of ROLLING STONE. And deservedly so: After hundreds of shows — at open-mic nights, 20-capacity bars, hot dog stands, a yurt and even in a tree — the Sheepdogs have perfected their vintage boogie-rock sound, with its flourishes of psychedelia, Allman Brothers-inspired guitar-weaving (they simply call it “guitar-mony”) and winding three-part vocal harmonies. Their third album, 2010’s Learn & Burn, is immediately gratifying, recalling the Doors, Neil Young, the Beatles, Allen Toussaint and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and their tight live sets have the power to instantly win over classic-rock fans. Their new Atlantic Records labelmate Kid Rock, who mentored the Sheepdogs in the competition, is now a full-fledged fan. “They’re exactly where rock & roll should be,” he says.
And after I played my three favorite Sheepdogs songs for Kings of Leon’s Caleb and Nathan Followill — “I Don’t Know,” “Please Don’t Lead Me On” and “I Don’t Get By” — the Kings have invited the band to open their Canadian arena tour in October. “They have a timeless sound, and you can hear their influences from song to song,” says Caleb. “I can’t wait to hear those harmonies live.”