When Nick Jamerson and Kris Bentley, who make up the Kentucky duo Sundy Best, pull up to the Rolling Stone Country offices on Music Row, they look every bit the Nashville outsiders they are. Their ride is a 2005 Chevy conversion van that used to belong to Jamerson's grandmother — he traded her his car for it — and with Jamerson in worn flannel and knit hat, and Bentley in a puffy vintage racing jacket, the hardscrabble musicians appear in stark contrast to the meticulously manicured and coiffed country stars whose faces adorn congratulatory billboards up and down the Row.
Appropriately, Jamerson and Bentley look like they've just stepped out of the hollers of Kentucky. With syrupy accents and a back-porch vibe, they sound like it too. Which is what has helped distinguish the duo since forming four years ago. With Jamerson on acoustic guitar and Bentley on a cajón drum, Sundy Best have redefined what it means to give a "stripped down" performance. Still, their songs are anything but bare. Fleshed out by Jamerson's no-mic-necessary vocals and Bentley's rapid-fire box-drum technique, songs like "I Wanna Go Home" and "Until I Met You" from their 2014 album Bring Up the Sun are full-bodied affairs.
Jake Owen, a new fan who has tweeted his support of the group to his 1.5 million followers, praises Sundy Best's unique sound.
"I've always been very thankful to people that have waved my flag before and told people I was good. That's how anything gets told to the world. And I just wanted to wave their flag and tell people they're cool," says Owen, who discovered the band by watching its live performances on YouTube. "I'm a music geek and am always looking for stuff that dances around in my eardrum, something that feels good, sounds good and is different. I like the fact that they're one guitar and a cajón."
But while the two-man, cajón construction that has attracted Owen and the pair's "kinfolk" fan movement remains the core of Sundy Best, the group took leaps forward on its new album, Salvation City — which Rolling Stone Country is premiering in its entirety today. (Listen to the album below.)
For one, Bentley is playing a full drum kit along with cajón; Jamerson is further exploring the guitar, electric and acoustic. And both are diving deeper into their songwriting, continuing to shy away from the surefire lyrical trends of today.
"I feel like country music is an essence. You don't have to spend the whole time in a song talking about how country you are or how big your truck is. If that's what you are, people will know," says Jamerson, who settled on the title Salvation City after weathering a nearly nonstop touring schedule with Bentley. Near the end, the two were burned out.
"Salvation City is where you go or what you turn to when you're stretched out and you need a break from everything. We had found the only time we were really getting to enjoy ourselves in the whole rat race was when we were performing and playing music," he says. Jamerson, the quiet brooder to Bentley's happy-go-lucky persona, credits two concerts he caught this summer — one by the Allman Brothers, the other by Tom Petty — with restoring his psyche.
"Personally, getting to see them, it saved me from losing my mind. When you do what we do, playing is what got us away from the stresses of life, and now it was the source of our stress. Getting to go back and become fans of music again, and enjoy it, that saved me," he explains.
"We really honed in on this one, on making a complete album, from front to back," adds Bentley, who says the duo decided against previewing Salvation City until today to heighten the album experience for listeners. "We wanted everyone to get it all at once, dive into it and hopefully be off their phones for 40 minutes to escape."
Produced by RS Field (Shaver's Tramp on Your Street, Steve Earle's upcoming Terraplane), Salvation City is a sonic ride, 10 songs that range from down-home hootenannies ("Fishin'") to soulful ballads ("Piece of Work)." Opening track "Shotgun Lady" is a staccato sing-along, kicking off with an electric riff that announces something new this way comes.
"That was the first song that we recorded," says Jamerson, "and it sets a tone that this is going to be different."
"Southern Boy," written by Bentley, is perhaps the most distinctly Sundy Best track. Featuring a guitar lick that evokes Dickey Betts' work on "Blue Sky," the song is a celebration of the Southern worldview. While the title could have led down a road of country boy clichés, Bentley approached it from a hippie warrior stance — "dressed in fighting armor, no weapon but my will," Jamerson sings— and nodded to the American standard "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in the chorus.
"I think it's an appreciation of working for something you want, and earning something. For us, that's how we were taught and raised. If there's something you want, go out and get it, but you're going to have to work for it if it's going to last and be fulfilling," he says. "It's the Southern way of living, but at the same time, that mindset and lifestyle can be adopted by anybody."
"Where we're from, there is a certain resolve and grit and determination that people have," says Jamerson. "To choose to work in the coal mines over anything else? That says a lot about people who will do that just to make a living."
The centerpiece of Salvation City is "I Want You to Know (World Famous Love Song)," a lush, exotic ballad that cascades like a hillbilly wall of sound. Full of strings and Hammond B3 organ, it sounds like something that would be played in a desert lounge bar where cowboys in tuxedos smoke hash.
"That song makes me feel like I'm in this, just, purple desert… It's acid country," says Jamerson, searching for an image. "You know how Kacey Musgraves' band dresses? In those light-up suits? It's like everyone is dressed in those suits."
"In the future, I can see us having more songs in that world," says Bentley. "As avid music fans ourselves, we love to see artists change and take risks, and evolve into the most they can be."
Sundy Best's musical risk-taking is one of the things that Owen loves the most about the group. "With everything you hear on the radio now," he says, "for those guys to come out as a mainly acoustic duo is so cool and refreshing."
Jamerson and Bentley remain flattered by Owen's support.
"We've never met him," says Bentley. "We don't live here, we don't really know anybody. So to be on people's radars who have a voice and are well-known is very cool for us."
After a tour through Canada opening for Dallas Smith, Sundy Best will take two months off to prepare a new live show and let fans digest Salvation City. When they return to the road for another run of club shows this winter, they'll do so in that same 2005 Chevy van.
"We're happy with driving in an almost broken-down van to shows," says Bentley. "We work every day and do what we have to do. You have to get your hands dirty."
To be sure, on an independent label — eOne Music Nashville — the group has to push harder than other big-bankrolled acts to make a dent. It's the classic tale of the struggling musician, touring and playing tirelessly to build a base and career.
"You worry about sustaining," admits Jamerson, "and with the way we do it, it is so dependent on word of mouth that you never know what's going to happen or where you're reaching people. But we have a peace about it. We realize there's no peak. There's no championship to win. Tomorrow, we're going to get up and make new music and play for people."
He rises with Bentley to head back to the van, pulling his knit cap onto his head. "That's a challenge we have accepted long ago."