Jon Knudson has always treasured road trips, particularly the outings he’d go on with his family when he was younger.
"There's something in our blood I think about driving into mountains, and visiting the highest peak," he said.
That road, and the fleeting experiences it yields, provides the thematic underpinnings for a lot of the music of Driveway Thriftdwellers, an Americana pop band that Knudson fronts. On the Thriftdwellers' new self-titled album, to be released on Thursday, that influence of the road is palpable.
Sometimes the road's role is explicit: On the opening cut, “King of Milwaukee,” Knudson paints a picture of a highway warrior, someone out for a ride “with a girl from Minnesota” and “going 95 chasing the sun.”
That affinity for the road also manifests in the form of storytelling, stories of fleeting “strangers and experiences” that one encounters when traveling. On “Snow Ghosts and Alpenglow,” Knudson shows off those narrative-based chops, sharing a love story set in the mountains that revels in specificity and vibrant imagery.
“Let me tell you, I can still see her there, looking out the window of an Amtrak station, damn — the Empire Builder heading west,” he sings over a chugging, mid-tempo country groove.
Driveway Thriftdwellers is a five-person ensemble that splits its time between Milwaukee and Madison. It's been met with acclaim in both communities: The Thriftdwellers' first album, "Cutover Country," was listed as one of the year's best in 2016 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the band has been a perennial favorite at the Madison Area Music Awards. In 2017, the Wisconsin Area Music Industry named the band the best country act of the year.
The band — comprising Knudson on lead vocals and guitar, his brother Ryan on pedal steel guitar, Kyle Rightley on lead guitar, Aaron Collins on bass and Jon Storey on drums — first formed around 2012 as a cover band for the influential country act the Flying Burrito Brothers. Soon after, they tinkered with their own original material.
“It grew into, let's write some songs, and let's stop doing so many four-hour bar shows and instead see if people are interested in the things that we create,” said Knudson.
The band has a penchant for evocative and narrative-driven music, as was showcased on “Cutover Country." Knudson said that the new record, however, represents the first truly organic Driveway Thriftdwellers album. Before, its music was comprised of scattered material the members had first come up with through playing in other bands and projects. The new record is solely music nurtured from the ground up, crafted through in-studio collaboration and experimentation.
Knudson pointed to “Snow Ghosts and Alpenglow” as an example: When finessing that song, his bandmates encouraged the frontman to try stitching together parts of different songs he’d been working on into a Frankenstein-like concoction. It worked, he said.
“It was a couple of cells, and it turned into a full-grown monster,” he said.
He added: “These guys all know how to work toward a common goal of making one sound. I think some bands might struggle with that sometimes, if there's one guy who just really wants to rip out a six-minute guitar solo.”
Knudson also said the new album reflects a shift in genre: The band is still Americana, he said, but it has embraced a rock and roll sound, with more urgent percussion and driving guitars. He credited the album’s producer, the recording engineer Ian Olvera, for some of the record’s “sonic edge,” which he said resulted in a sound that borders on progressive or punk rock.
The band will perform songs from its album at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 5 p.m., as part of the annual Flannel Fest Americana music festival. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.