Park City, Utah, is a paradox of a place in the summertime. The green hills are quiet in the early mornings but bustling with activity in the afternoon, tourists window shopping at boutiques that specialize in overpriced work-wear and Western motifs: a $500 pair of jeans here, a $700 denim jacket there, a $450 cowboy hat, et cetera.
Musician Jared Kolesar peeks through a window at a bandana-printed dress, a pattern that was once a necessity of the West, now refashioned into an accessory. He scoffs at it we move up the street, discussing the idea of heritage being misappropriated in the name of exploitation. We’re in Park City for a one-off show, and the topic of what’s legit and what’s not comes up often over the course of the weekend. Kolesar has every right to feel strongly about the validity of something as seemingly innocuous as a bandana; the vocalist of Jared & The Mill is a fifth-generation Arizonan, the descendant of Valley ranchers who once wore the real thing while cultivating their land. Pop culture has a tendency to infringe on what is real. It’s a theme that’s all too familiar to his band.
Authenticity is a touchy subject, especially with a group that draws as much from folk and country music as Jared & The Mill. Their past two records, Western Expansion and Life We Chose, often dealt with the idea of transience through sepia- and rose-colored lenses, sometimes touching on the longing that comes with constant movement. The Phoenix-born and -bred band, comprising Kolesar, guitarist Larry Gast III, banjo/mandolin player Michael Carter, bassist Chuck Morriss III, and drummer Josh Morin (former accordion player Gabe Hall-Rodrigues appears on recordings but no longer tours with the band), knows what it’s like to see great wilds, dusty plains, and roads running off toward the horizon.
The road is where they found themselves and ultimately, their success, as Phoenix wasn’t necessarily all that welcoming to begin with. Kolesar laughs when recounting being turned down from playing The Trunk Space on a few separate occasions early on. Instead, within the first four months of their formation, Jared & The Mill played the legendary Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles. Now, they’ve gone so far as to play arenas while opening for Barry Gibb, culminating in a show at the Hollywood Bowl that had them giddy and reverent in a backstage green room. It’s almost as if Jared & The Mill had to leave Phoenix in order to be loved in their hometown — staying true to themselves is what eventually brought them recognition and local adoration, yet they never stopped loving Arizona.
Soon they will release Orme Dugas, a record whose name is a deep-cut nod to the Grand Canyon State, coming into their own with a collection of songs tempered by the road. Recorded in Nashville, the songwriting here is bolstered by the strength of Jared & The Mill’s instrumentation, each musician standing on their own while complementing one another. Producer Ryan Hewitt helmed the recording of Orme Dugas, and this music is firmly in his wheelhouse, with clients that include the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers and Brandi Carlile, among other notables. Morin says Hewitt’s live tracking captured more of the band’s live energy, a product that’s a staple of Jared & The Mill’s appeal and something they’ve honed over numerous tours.
They’ve been at this since their college days, and now with millions of digital plays, thousands of miles, a few sponsorships, and countless performances under their belt, they’re undeniably singing about what they know. It all sounds very romantic, and it can be, but this is also a business. Jared & The Mill are still an independent band with no label backing, and Orme Dugas’ release is no exception. Each band member has a day job when they’re in between tours, and few of them are even slightly glamorous. Just days after returning from Utah, Jared & The Mill will be leaving for their 14th national run, and it’s a long one this time. There’s a running joke between the guys: “It’s all the same tour, man.”
Such devotion to the band’s progression is obvious — it’s how each day starts and each day ends for them. Even on the rare day off before a show, Kolesar and Jared & The Mill’s manager, Travis Alexander, immediately reach for their laptops the moment they wake up, trading notes on graphics and release timelines and streaming numbers and ad campaigns and so on. There is no office to report to; this is a hotel room, and we’re all groggy from poor sleep and Utah’s high altitude.
The maintenance of the cult of personality that surrounds a rising band is constant. Development, traveling, and writing are all foiled against delivering a compelling live show every night, with the hope of eventually creating some brilliant new material so that the cycle can begin again.
“Your soul doesn’t really get to rest,” Kolesar says.
We’re sitting on a peak overlooking Park City, tall aspens and pines rising around us. Even here, surrounded by so much natural beauty, it’s all too easy to miss home.
“Your body and mind needs to be at calm with what your surroundings are like, and it’s stressful to the body to be constantly on the move, to know that you don’t have any idea what’s going on around you in a greater scheme. When I go home, I feel like I have superpowers, because I know where shit is. I know where I can get a good cup of coffee. I know where my friends live. That is a luxury I never thought about when I started touring,” he says.
When home is so far away so often, banding together is essential. This is also something that people will tell you about Jared & The Mill – they genuinely like each other and fight never. Bassist Morriss likens touring to flowing water and their brotherly cohesion to a life raft as we grab dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in Tucson a few days later. He’s here for his current day job as tour manager of Phoenix psych-rock act Harrison Fjord, a younger group that will hopefully reap the benefits of Morriss' experience.
“If you’re seeking for something to grab onto, you’ll make anything that comes your way into something stationary, but it’s very easy to grab onto each other and float down the stream together,” Morriss says. “Sometimes shit is going to get fucked up, and when those things happen, you have to go back to your roots and find the few things that have remained consistent.”
That consistency is as vital to their growth as the music they make.
“It’s extremely rare these days to find a group that is as connected and integrated like these dudes are,” Alexander says.
To some degree, home can be found from within the band, even when the romanticism of the road is stripped away. They all now laugh about a 28-hour-long coast-to-coast run they once pulled at the end of a tour. The subtext behind such a grueling drive is obvious, though: Their run was over, and they had never been more anxious to get back to Arizona. Jared & The Mill usually sees a place through the windows of a van as they’re leaving or entering a city, making the familiarities of Phoenix all that more attractive and the rare instance when there’s a landmark outside of it even more so. So when Kolesar spots a little clapboard building called Granny’s Drive-In in Heber City as we’re leaving Utah, he gets excited. The restaurant apparently makes a noteworthy burger he's wanted to try since the band first rolled by on some now-distant tour. But Granny’s Drive-In is closed, and we move on down Main Street. Yet again, Kolesar won’t get a chance to try it. Maybe next time.
On banjo/mandolin player Michael Carter’s first date with his girlfriend, Ashley Abbey, she noticed a matted dog collar hanging from the rear-view mirror of his Toyota Tacoma. She didn't mention it until they were headed up north on a camping trip to a place called he called Orme, situated off the I-17 freeway, just east of Prescott. The collar once belonged to Tanner, the first dog he’d ever had and the only one he’s had to date. Tanner loved the Orme area so much that it was the last place Carter took him to before putting him down, later spreading his ashes there.
“As I listened to Michael share that particular Orme story, what would be one of Tanner’s last camping trips and witnessing his last ounce of strength under the stars, it made me look at this campsite, a place that at first glance seems a little insignificant, so special and tender,” Abbey says. “It’s a place to say goodbye to things and say hello to new things, a place he’s loved for a lot of reasons.”
It’s easy to see why anyone, dog or man, could love this spot — colloquially known as Orme-Dugas, named for the each of the roads that run east and west off the interstate. It’s a rolling terrain, studded with black basalt outcroppings and inhabited by cows warily chewing their cud. Back off the main road is a stand of cottonwood trees at the base of a hill, a monsoon-fickle stream cutting through the furrow between mountain and valley. The only place that Jared & The Mill has ever camped as a band, Orme-Dugas’ road sign is also their personal marker that home is just around the bend, a welcome sight after a long tour. When deciding on the name of the record, someone pitched Orme Dugas offhandedly and it stuck — a bit of an inside-baseball reference, a bit of mystique, but something undeniably Arizonan.
This is a record that makes more sense when you hear it through the scope of traveling. As we made the midnight drive from Utah back to Phoenix, it started to click somewhere outside of Las Vegas, doing 95 miles an hour through the cooling desert. The songs have a thread running through them that almost feels like a distillation of the experiences they’ve had: losing loved ones suddenly and being unable to be with family, spending holidays with strangers, having romantic partners decide that you’re gone too long and too often, but always finding hope in home and the music.
Album opener “Lost, Scared & Tired” is as weary as it sounds, anchored by Kolesar’s shuffling guitar and Carter’s banjo in what may be the most Western-sounding song on the record, replete with local imagery like blooming creosote and monsoon winds. “Keep Me Going,” the lead single, is a rollicking country-leaning tune that gets punchy in the first 10 seconds, Hall-Rodrigues’ accordion and Morriss’ bass at the front of the mix, a big, trademark chorus harmony at the center of it all.
Then there’s “Song For A Girl,” a track that’s vulnerable to the point of self-flagellation while never reaching martyrdom. Kolesar’s gritted-teeth lament of love lost by way of alienation and Gast’s ethereal, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-pedal-steel guitar playing are the highlights here. It’s as mean to the song’s subject as it is to the song’s creator, and it almost didn’t make it to the record. When Kolesar played it for the band during the recording process, “it got the attention of everyone in the room,” says Morin.
“Song For A Girl” tells a story in an engaging and concise way, refining what makes Jared & The Mill such a beloved act into a single song. We’re back in Phoenix, sitting in the living room of Carter’s Tempe home. It’s a beautiful little bungalow in the middle of the Farmer-Ash neighborhood, adorned with vintage finds, good whiskey, and the odd leather-bound book. The placement of each accoutrement looks almost deliberate. If “Song For A Girl” sounds like Jared & The Mill, then Carter’s house, the unofficial meeting place of the band, is the physical embodiment of it.
“The more mature we get a unit, the more we go with our gut,” Gast says. “We each came to the table with a different musical background or different palates, and then the act of being on the road and sharing records and experiences, common interests, seem to flush themselves out."
Whether they like it or not, part of their own story is their contribution to the pantheon of successful Arizona musical acts. David Slutes, vocalist for the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies, likens Orme Dugas to a Gin Blossoms release during that band’s heyday. It’s not a narrative that Jared & The Mill seems entirely comfortable with, in terms of checking their own humility, but it’s a torch they’re carrying that grows brighter with each achievement.
“We’ve always had this image of putting Arizona on the map by putting ourselves on the map,” Morin says, and Orme Dugas sure feels like it could be a tipping point.
In what way it will catalyze a shift is uncertain, however — the general direction is upwards, propelling the band’s success further, but there’s a lot of sounds here to unpack. Orme Dugas blurs lines to the point where the ambiguity becomes an asset unto itself, a record that sounds exactly like Jared & The Mill to the returning listener but a little more gray to a newcomer. It’s not rock, it’s not country, it’s not folk, but it’s not quite pop. So where do they fit? They’ve opened for the Zac Brown Band, the War on Drugs, Allen Stone, and the Killers, to name a few, and while it’s an impressive list, it’s a still a grab bag.
Their undefinable nature is also their strongest weapon. It’s why soccer moms, hipsters, rednecks, white-collar workers, critics, families, and virtually anyone who’s cool or uncool can be a fan in equal measure. Taking look at the band’s social media accounts and the followers that engage with them confirms this. At one point during our Utah trip, Alexander jokes that Jared & The Mill isn’t a “cool” band themselves, and he’s right. They were never a band that set out to be en vogue or a byproduct of current trends, yet they have definitely produced something cool with Orme Dugas. More importantly, they have produced something with staying power, the grand result of taking their own approach.
“You sort of have all of these flags that you hold when you’re young, things you believe in, but [now] our honest answer is that we play music that is true to us,” Carter says. “These songs came from a lot of things and a lot of experiences, just touring with your buddies, and this record to me sounds like that. It feels the most real to us and we just had faith in it. It was cool realizing we don’t have those flags anymore.”
Putting down their proverbial guns also means exposing the uglier facets of growing up. “I think a lot of what I write about, and this may be the theme of the band, is how you deal with hurting people, all these mistakes that you make,” Kolesar says. “How do you take these things and still come out a good person? Sometimes you feel lost, like you’re just a little boy, and you want to go home and you can’t.”
It’s a sobering thing to realize that you can’t go back to who you were. To accept it is one thing, but to channel that awareness into music is another, and that’s the underlying current to Orme Dugas. There’s some instances, however, in which we’re reminded that staying true to oneself and taking the good with the bad, artistically or otherwise, is the real merit of a person. There’s an ancient, sweat-stained cowboy hat that Kolesar owns, worn by his cattle-driving great-grandfather who was one of those first Phoenicians in his lineage. When Kolesar's grandfather passed the heirloom down to Jared, he just asked that he take good care of it. "He told me just to brush it out, but not to wash it or make it fancy because that's not what it is,” he says.
It’s meant to be utilitarian, now to be worn by Kolesar as Jared & The Mill cuts its own path. Like his band, that cowboy hat simply is what it is, doing what it does well with little influence from the outside world. It just has be maintained so that it can carry on.
Jared & The Mill is scheduled to play Livewire in Scottsdale on Saturday, September 17.
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