By Wayne Bledsoe
Photography by Adam Brimer
It’s a warm night in September, and rock band the Dirty Guv’nahs is ready to perform the first of two nights at Knoxville’s Bijou Theatre. Out in the hall, the seats are beginning to fill up. Fans are chatting, and there’s an air of excitement.
Backstage, the members of the band, friends and family are mostly crammed into one of the Bijou’s upstairs dressing rooms, laughing, drinking a little and cracking jokes. Former band keyboardist Chris Doody chats with current keyboardist Kevin Hyfantis. Vocalist James Trimble greets his wife with a warm smile, and the two are among the few who spill out into the hall.
Moments later, the group, along with family and friends, huddles in a circle like a sports team about to play their fiercest rivals. However, when the group takes the stage, bathed in red lights, it’s obvious that everyone in the audience is on the same team. The crowd is on their feet and roaring its approval as the band launches into the song “Don’t Give Up On Me.”
The Dirty Guv’nahs has earned praise from everyone from the Boston Globe and Paste magazine to Southern Living. Online entertainment site Examiner.com called the band “the best thing to come out of Knoxville since Peyton Manning.” The group regularly tours the country, and when in Knoxville, the act performs two consecutive nights at the 600-plus Bijou Theatre or one night at the 1,600-plus Tennessee Theatre.
A few weeks before the band’s 2014 Bijou shows, the members sat around an outdoor table at Central Flats and Taps on Central Avenue in Knoxville, sipping beer and talking about their experiences.
All the members are graduates of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and, while band bassist Justin Hoskins says none of them “majored in rock band,” he believes the university played a major part in the band’s formation.
“This band would not exist had we not all gone to UT,” says Hoskins (Knoxville ’05). “I really got a lot of lifelong friendships from my time at UT that are still very much a part of my life. You meet like-minded people who are maybe dumb enough to start a band!”
“Dumb” might not be the correct word. “Brazen” might be more accurate, or maybe the key word would be “audacious.” It is Hoskins’ audacity that resulted in the formation of the group. In 2006, a friend called Hoskins to ask if he knew of a band that might fill the opening slot in a charity show in Knoxville’s Old City.
Hoskins immediately offered his band for the gig and got it. However, the only band Hoskins had was in his imagination, and the show was two weeks away. He called his former UT roommate James Trimble and simply said, “You’re in a band!” By the end of the day, he had also enlisted buddy Mitch Stewart (Knoxville ’05) on guitar and Hoskins’ his little brother, Aaron Hoskins, on drums because he was the only drummer they knew and, according to Justin in a 2011 interview, “We knew he’d join because he was still in high school and didn’t know any better.”
“I really value the time I spent in college…It opened my world up in a really positive way.”
Chris Doody (Knoxville ’07) was enlisted as a keyboard player because they knew he had a keyboard stored under his couch. And Richard Baird, a friend of Justin Hoskins and Trimble, invited guitarist Michael Jenkins to join the group without ever asking the actual band members. Jenkins showed up as a sort of surprise gift. Trimble was assigned vocal duties because he was the worst guitar player, and the musicians took the name “The Dirty Guv’nahs” in tribute to Baird’s nickname, “The Guv.”
Almost unbelievably, the young men pulled off the gig. The audience seemed to enjoy it, and the band members had too much fun to not keep going. More bookings followed. Audiences got bigger, and the band got better. When the Guv’nahs started touring, repeated visits to towns would result in audiences sometimes doubling from one show to the next.
Stewart quit the group shortly after recording the band’s debut album in 2009, and guitarist Cozmo Holloway, who had occasionally sat in with the group, was invited to join full time. Doody left the group after recording the band’s 2012 album “Beneath These Southern Skies” so he could spend more time with his wife and new baby. Kevin Hyfantis, another longtime friend of the band, joined in his place.
Justin Hoskins says he probably puts his degree in political science to use on a regular basis. “You have to play the politics game in the music industry pretty strong,” he says.
“Justin is what you might call our chief strategist when it comes to the decision making,” says Trimble (Knoxville ’05, ’08).
“I double-majored in psychology and religious studies,” says Trimble. “A liberal arts degree is what I got.”
It wasn’t so much Trimble’s course of study that stuck with him, though. “I came from a pretty conservative background and grew up with a lot of folks who thought really similar,” says Trimble. “I really value the time I spent in college—the things I learned and the time I got to spend with professors. It opened my world up in a really positive way.”
He says he also learned that he really enjoyed organizing groups of people.
“Everything from throwing parties to being a group leader in a class,” says Trimble. “I loved the organizing aspect. When Justin helped us start this band, we just kind of fell into this, and I think a lot of the initial excitement with me is thinking, ‘Wow, this is just a great, amazing way to organize people for positive reasons.’ It wasn’t until college that I had a chance to dive deep into that part of my personality that was developing.”
Like his older brother, Aaron Hoskins (Knoxville ’10) earned a degree in political science.
“It teaches you about seeing problems in the everyday world and seeing solutions with different people. When you’re in a band, you’re oftentimes looking for solutions. I had a great experience at UT. It’s nice to meet people who grew up in different places and different lifestyles than you. When you live in one town, everybody from your school is from your same neighborhood, and you have a limited perspective. When you go to a big school like UT, you meet different races, religions, ideologies and people with different senses of humor. It really broadens everything. That was really important to me. And it was really cool that I got to take some music classes, too.”
“I think one of the best things about college is meeting people who are willing to take risks.”
Hyfantis (Knoxville ’05) didn’t know any of the other members while in college, even though he shared a residence hall with some of them.
“We were probably passing each other every day. I spent a lot of my freshman year in my dorm room with a really crappy Casio keyboard trying to figure out chords and music. It was the start of where I am now. Towards the end of college, I started doing open-mic nights, and then I ran into these guys and later joined the band. I have a PR (public relations) degree. So I suppose that comes in handy.”
Holloway (Knoxville ’04, ’05) says it was meeting new friends that encouraged him to pursue music. It’s slightly ironic, considering that his father is acclaimed UT bass instructor Harold “Rusty” Holloway.
“When you go to a big school like UT, you meet different races, religions, ideologies and people with different senses of humor. It really broadens everything.”
“I was an athlete from 6 years old up until 19 or 20,” says the younger Holloway. “It never really crossed my mind to dive into the music world. I kind of fell into it gradually. I started out in logistics and transportation. Then I shifted into wanting to be a teacher. So I got a human resources development degree, and I’ve got a master’s in business and marketing with an education concentration and a master’s in the theory of education. I thought I was going to be a teacher.”
He says that what he really learned was time management because, when he switched his path, he had to take so many more classes to graduate on time. “It also taught me how to teach myself how to solve problems,” he says.
Jenkins, though, with a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering and a master’s of business administration, has the degrees that seem to surprise people.
“He’s utilizing both degrees on a daily basis for our band,” says Aaron Hoskins. “Jenkins single-handedly built our studio,” says Holloway. “He’s our sound engineer and our producer.”
“Learn how to learn. That’s what college really is,” says Jenkins (Knoxville ’08, ’09).
The band has learned each time it’s made an album and each time it’s gone on a new tour. “For me, there’s that old saying that each step informs the next,” says Trimble.
“We like to sit down and make a list of goals and figure out how to achieve them,” says Aaron Hoskins.
“Then we realize halfway through the goals that they’re unrealistic, and we have to scrap them,” says Holloway. Scrapping plans, though, doesn’t mean giving up.
That was the case with band’s new album “Hearts On Fire.” The band went to Nashville to record the album with producer/engineer Richie Biggs but scrapped the work when the members realized that the songs weren’t as good as they needed to be. The group returned to Knoxville, made the songs better and recorded it on their own, utilizing some of the things they’d learned from Biggs. The finished disc debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and helped fuel the group’s most successful tour to date.
Justin Hoskins says it’s all about working with the right people:
“I think one of the best things about college is meeting people who are willing to take risks. Like with James, we liked trying to do something risky or something that didn’t make sense and trying to make it work—the challenge of that. When you’re around people who have that same feeling, there’s a lot of creative energy, and it really fires you up. It’s us against the world, and let’s prove that we can do this! That is a really cool thing.”
Wayne Bledsoe is a music writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel and host of the WDVX-FM radio show “All Over the Road.”