By Jered Scott

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Tumbledown Finds the Real America In An Empty Bottle

Webster's defines "tumbledown" as "dilapidated, ramshackle." For Tumbledown singer/guitarist Mike Herrera, the term evokes "something from a bygone era that's been long forgotten," like the "tumbledown shacks" he read about in the biography Woody Guthrie: A Life. That image of America's past spoke so loudly to Herrera that it gave his band a name. The music of Tumbledown takes that sepia-tinged image of Americana and sends it hurtling into the present, with the help of some punk-inflected riffs and pure rock & roll attitude. The punky side of the band's musical personality comes naturally to Herrera, who first became known in the '90s as the frontman for renowned rockers MxPx, but the pure, honest twang of country music has been echoing in the Tumbledown leader's ears ever since he was a young boy singing along while Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" came stomping out of his family's car stereo.

In the late '90s, after he'd already spent years on the road himself, rocking out all over the globe with MxPx, Herrera started tapping into that long-held love of American roots music, and out came songs that had more to do with down-home, old-timey sensibilities than the larger-than-life rock world. But it wasn't until 2007 that he finally formed Tumbledown, to realize his vision of an Americana band with some raw-boned, rock & roll bite. The next year, Tumbledown released their first EP, Atlantic City, followed by a self-titled album in 2009 (End Sounds) and a live CD entitled Live In Tulsa, and they've never looked back since.

These days, Herrera is more dedicated to the roots-rockin' sound of Tumbledown than ever, and Empty Bottle, the band's second studio album, reaffirms that musical mission in no uncertain terms. Alongside Jack Parker on guitar and brothers Marshall and Harley Trotland on standup bass and drums, respectively, Herrera sings about themes that have been a part of country and roots music from the beginning drinking, fighting, gambling, ladies of the night and brushes with the law, all the things that add up to an uncompromising, real-deal look at American life as lived by those who aren't afraid to push it to the limit and beyond.

Herrera himself readily admits to being besotted by the romance of recklessness and rough-and-tumble living, the kind you'll find at the heart of Empty Bottle. In fact, the album's title track itself was inspired by the intimate relationship the band maintains with alcohol, even when they're in the studio. "We average about one 750 ml bottle of vodka or whiskey at each session," admits Herrera, "including regular practice. So, 'Empty Bottle' seemed to work as the title on many levels." The songs were written by Herrera at tour stops all over the world, but the tracks were all laid down at home, in his own Bremerton, WA studio, Monkey Trench.

The characters in Herrera's songs drink to forget; they ask for a reason to stay in town without really expecting to get one; they look at the madness around them and wonder whether it's them or the rest of the world that's gone crazy. But for as much as Empty Bottle may paint a stark picture of life for the desperate, the driven, and the downtrodden, it ultimately points towards the possibility of an escape from those vicious circles of sadness and self-destruction, a way to deal with all the hard knocks. The most obvious and immediate way, of course, is simply to let the songs unfold, inhabit your bloodstream, and bring you around to the Tumbledown perspective.

From the full-frontal cowpunk attack of the opening cut, "Places In This Town," where the narrator braves harm to body and soul but forges ahead regardless, to closing track "Not Hung Over," a classic morning-after-madness tale of a dizzy-headed drinking man's denial, Empty Bottle offers an image of Americana that's as true, tragic, tumultuous, and tantalizing as any you'll get from some acoustic guitar-strumming folkie. You can call it alt-country if you want to, or even outlaw country, but for all the six-string twang and hell-bent two-steps that tumble out of these tunes, you can't discount the pure rock & roll power Tumbledown brings to the table either.

So where's it all headed? Well, in musing on the road that lies ahead of Tumbledown, Herrera says "I plan on releasing a lot more material much more often from now on." In the meantime, there's an Empty Bottle to open up night after night, for a different crowd each time. The old philosophical question about half-full vs. half-empty may not apply, but listening to these songs, it's obvious that Mike Herrera and Tumbledown draw their energy from a source that says "Empty is okay for what's inside the bottle it's what's outside that matters." And that's exactly where Tumbledown is coming from.