Dead Winter Carpenters
By Shelby C. Berry
From as early as she can remember, California native Jenni Charles listened to bluegrass and country music while performing with her family band in the Bay Area. As she got older, she appreciated the camaraderie of playing music. By the time she got to college, she had playedindependently and wanted to expand into jamming with others, which provided a space for Jenni to find herself as a musician.
"The California bluegrass scene allows you to find these pockets of like-thinkers, and that instantly bonds you," Charles said.
Charles' life changed in 2009 when she met Jesse Dunn at a music festival. He became her bandmate and husband. "We were in different bands at the time," Charles said. "After each of us had members of our bands who wanted to do their own thing, five of us from Jesse's band and mine came together to start a new band."
The band officially started in 2010 with a catalog of songs they wanted to record, and by June, they had recorded an album and hit the road. With Charles on fiddle, and Dunn, on acoustic and electric guitar, they were joined by Dave Lockhart on upright and electric bass, Nick Swimley on lead telecaster guitar, and Brendan Smith on drums to round out their sound as the progressive Americana band Dead Winter Carpenters.
Like Sam Bush and Jack White, their genre-bending music didn't fence them into a particular style. "We started as more of a bluegrass band but have started leaning more toward Americana and rock music. We still do covers of bluegrass songs, but on the West Coast, the bluegrass sound is less traditional. It's beautiful. It's constantly changing. We leaned on that and started playing that way, using bluegrass elements in rhythm and style," Charles said.
Alongside his wife and other band members, Dunn is a skilled songwriter who has been creating impactful and thought-provoking music for the band for over a decade. "Jesse does about 95% of our songwriting," Charles said. "It's definitely reflective of our lives and personal experiences. He even wrote a song about our daughter titled "Lift Me Up." All of our songs are someone's true stories, we like to say."
After two and a half years since their last release, Dead Winter Carpenters is getting ready to head back into the studio to record their next album with a planned release for next year. The band's previous recordings include their self-titled debut album, 2012's Ain't It Strange, 2014's Dirt Nap, and 2016's Washoe. The band's progressive nature shines through loud and clear in the band's most recent release, an EP titled Sinners n' Freaks, released in April 2020. The band initially planned to tour with this EP and record a live full-length album on the road, but COVID-19 altered their plans.
Performances take them all over the country for small, intimate venues, huge shows, and notable festivals like Harvest Music Festival, Strawberry Music Festival, Northwest String Summit, and Del Fest. They have shared stages with artists like Jason Isbell and Greensky Bluegrass.
"Playing The Fillmore was the highlight of my life," Charles said. "That's the place I went as a kid where I decided I wanted to play music. Being on the same stage 20 years later doing what I love was magical for me."
When creating music, Dead Winter Carpenters has found that they don't need to adhere to a traditional style of music unless that is your goal. "We focus on keeping it light and fun," Charles said. "The main goal is to enjoy each other's company. Some say we are bluegrass,and some say rock, but we are just trying to have fun."
While Charles and Dunn initially came together over their love for Neil Young, today's band is influenced more by artists who take traditional roots and put their twist on it, such as Tyler Childers, Nicholas Jameson, and Billy Strings.
As a genre-crossing band, Dead Winter Carpenters takes value in the element that the fiddle brings to their music.
"You don't need a fiddle unless you are playing country, western, or bluegrass music. Even with playing a fast bluegrass rock' n' roll, the fiddle brings more of a bluegrass element. It makes soft songs softer and brings something different to the mix," Charles said.
As the Dead Winter Carpenters move toward the future with their upcoming tour dates and album recordings, they reflect on the importance of what they do and why they share it with the world.
"We want to keep making music for ourselves and bring people joy," Charles said. "We want to tour as much as makes sense for everyone. The pandemic and coming out of that changed things for us. Our long-term goal is to continue to tour and make music people enjoy." The most rewarding part, she said, was "purely making people happy"… to get them onto the dance floor "to forget their woes and be happy in the moment."