If you are lucky in country music, you will eventually run into hard luck.
Anyone can have gratitude on a sunny Friday pay day. It’s the broke-a** rainy Tuesdays that keep you on your feet or flat on your back. And while country music isn’t all ragged blues and boozy ruminations, arguably the best and most memorable music of that form cuts deeper than the anthemic-and-dull contemporary pop-country music.
Jacksonville country band Dean Winter and the Heat surely inject a little existential angst into the jukebox. The four-piece band consists of Dean Winter on vocals and guitar, Jack Mock on pedal steel, bass guitarist-vocalist Jeremy Blanton and Ty Sullivan on drums and vocals. Since their inception, Dean Winter and the Heat have maintained a certain local presence, with regular gigs in area venues and festivals. Their debut release, the EP Pay Dirt, and a handful of singles have also made the band regular faves of Jacksonville Music Experience, including a 2022 live performance and interview for our series, Live on the JME Soundstage.
A year ago, the band released Wheel of Bliss. The album is a tight and fiery ten-song collection of 21st-century honky tonk. The tunes run the spectrum from “Every Friday Night,” an upbeat charger about either conquering, or being conquered by, the bar to the slow-burn ballad of “Adeline.” While the band are in their thirties, from songwriting to the album’s production, there is a knowledge and reverence for country music that keeps Wheel of Bliss from skidding off into a ditch of sappy anachronistic kitsch.
The album was originally released as a CD and download on streaming sites and now, due to fan demand, the band has pressed Wheel of Bliss on vinyl. Their upcoming “Heat Fest” concert at Intuition Ale Works, including guest openers Rambler Kane, Patsy’s Daydream, Billy Gilmore, Brett Bass, and Rex Putnam, is the official release for the LP version of the album.
Dean Winter recently spoke to JME, where we talked about the history of the band, discerning a good song from a clinker and what it means to Winter to be a country artist in the earliest days of the 21st century.
So this upcoming show at Intuition is the vinyl release for Wheel of Bliss. The album was originally released in digital format in July of 2022. Did you decide to press vinyl to satisfy a demand from fans or are you or other members of The Heat vinyl heads?
Yeah, I think “both and” is probably the answer to that question. We have been kind of focused on getting out of town a little bit and you’d be surprised at how many people ask us, “Hey, do y’all have vinyl records?” I think a lot of people love vinyl and I think a lot of people realize that vinyl is expensive to make and expensive to sell. And so it’s a good way to support a traveling band. So we’ve had them out on the road with us the last couple of weeks, while we’ve been out of town, just because we knew those people probably weren’t going to make it to Jacksonville for the July 1 show. And we sold probably close to 10 or so in the last few weekends, so we’re like, alright, the investment is making sense. You know, I think they’re gonna sell pretty quickly.
Where did you record Wheel of Bliss?
So we started it up in a cabin up in North Carolina. It was a retreat center that was called Wheel of Bliss. We all had that dream of just going into a cabin somewhere in the woods and making music. So we were like, “Alright, let’s do it.” The band was making a little bit of money. And we were like, “Yeah, let’s rent a place. Let’s get up there.” I think we were a little overzealous with what we could accomplish in five or six days. So we got up there, we got all the bass and drums done for the record. But on the way up, we had rented a U-Haul trailer, because our trailer was having a little leak in it. So we were like, we’ll just rent a U–Haul and we got about halfway through Georgia and we lost a wheel bearing. So we had to pull over and call U-Haul and wait like half the day for them to come. They couldn’t fix it, so they had to send us someplace, get another trailer, and finish the drive. So when we got up there it started snowing as we were driving up the mountain so we were just delayed, delayed, delayed…But when we finally got it going, it felt good up there. We just didn’t get as much done as we had initially kind of hoped for. So we came back and we finished it up with our friend Jacob Hudson over at Pine Studios, right here in Murray Hill. We all live in Murray Hill and the Lakeshore area.
So was the record tracked in analog or did you mix it in analog?
Yes, it was mixed in analog at The Bunker Studio up in Brooklyn by a guy named Aaron Nevezie. And we’re really happy with how it came out.
When did the band form? Has this been the same lineup for all of that time?
The band has been together since 2019. A few of us were doing different projects. We all have played music together over the years in different outfits and projects. And in 2019, I had a handful of songs and we had been doing this kind of alt-country-rock project called Banquet. We were kind of at a crossroads where I felt like I was writing more country music and we were trying to decide, “Are we going to be country? Or are we going to be rock?” And I decided I wanted to kind of press into this country thing. And we did a little shift in the lineup and we recorded that EP Pay Dirt with our friend Brok Mende; and we did four songs, and we did a release here in town on March 6, 2020. And it was funny, because we did it and everyone was talking about this COVID thing. They were like, “Do you think anything is going to happen with this COVID thing?” (Laughs). And we were kind of hot on putting out some songs and doing the honky tonk, and doing the country music thing where you just get out and you play as much as you can. And obviously, that didn’t happen. So we waited it out and when Florida started opening back up a little bit, we start playing some gigs. But yeah, it’s been this lineup since 2019.
So you moved to Jacksonville in 2008?
What led you to Jacksonville?
I went to school at JU. I studied music over there. And yeah, so I grew up in southern Maryland. I went to a little high school up there and it’s a good mix of kids, but I lived on a farm for the most part. And then we bought a house when I was in high school. But I want to just share this quick story about kind of my first experience with vinyl. We moved in and the people had left a record player and a stack of vinyl records. And that was kind of the first time I’d ever even seen vinyl; I was probably 13 or 14 years old.
What were some of the albums?
It was like Thin Lizzy and Simon and Garfunkel. A real mix of stuff.
(Laughs). Yeah. And so then I just started picking up records as much as I could. So, I got down here in 2008 and went to school and I met Jack, who plays [pedal steel and lead guitar] in the band, probably around 2010 or 2011. He and the rest of the guys are Jacksonville natives born and raised. But I met Jack and we started playing music together and we’ve lived together so we were pretty tight.
So what goes into that feeling when you have something as pure as a memory? What do you think about?Dean Winter on writing “Can’t Escape the Rain”
So you found those records, which aren’t really country music at all, and earlier you mentioned making the decision to either play rock or country. How did you get into country music? Did you grow up with your family playing country? Or was it a “Road to Damascus” moment where you heard someone like Lefty Frizzell and realized that was the way to go?
My mom was a country music lover. She absolutely loved country music and raised me on country music. And we had some ties to the bluegrass community up in Maryland. So I kind of grew up with country and bluegrass, but I was a little kid that could sing. And I had a mom who loved that so she’d take me out and I’d sing John Michael Montgomery along with karaoke tracks at fairs and carnivals and things like that. The only person that played music in my family was my grandmother. She would kind of play hymns on the organ and she could play the accordion. So she kind of always nurtured that musical bone for me too, and wanted to see me work on it. And she got me my first guitar and helped me buy guitars along the way. And definitely through high school, when you kind of get that angsty phase and you start leaning towards rock and punk rock, I lived that phase in my life. I traveled with a pop-punk band when I was in college for a while.
What was that band called?
We were called Inside the Target Car.
What did you sound like?
Do you know Four Year Strong?
No. But I just listen to like, prewar kazoo-band music and free jazz (laughs) so that’s no surprise. Was it like emo-style punk?
Yeah, like New Found Glory. It was a blast. We were college kids. If we could make enough money to put gas in the tank and buy Taco Bell, we were happy as clams. And after I got out of school I played for a lot of people, and was just kind of bouncing around from band to band and filling in, kind of taking some music-director roles and stuff like that. And I just kind of realized at one point that I had never done my own music. Jack and I had a band in Jacksonville, which we like to call the “One Spark”-era (laughs) called Fort Stories. We were like an indie-Americana folk-rock band.
I remember that band. What year was this?
That was probably 2014? Almost 10 years ago, which is weird to consider. (Laughs). I had been working a job and just one year, it was the new year, and I decided to write some new songs. And they kind of started out with this alt-country vibe and then they progressed to country music.
Let’s get into your current music and out of the gate, I gotta say that you have a really pure, and in the best sense of the word, stylized style of singing that fits perfectly within country music. Who were some of your biggest influences as far as a vocalist?
Well, thank you. Yeah, I’m starting to uncover some of what I had as a kid. I’ve been singing since I was probably about four or five years old and I have never really taken a break. So I’ve had a lot of influences along the way. I went to music school for voice at JU, got the degree, and I had some great vocal professors there, and studied a lot about the way the voice works. And so I feel like I have this neat perspective of really understanding my voice, and what I can make it do and what I can’t make it do. But doing music with The Heat in these last four years has really opened up some of those original influences of when I first opened my mouth to sing and what I wanted to sound like. And it’s been a very nostalgic journey of, “Oh yeah, I remember hearing Garth Brooks do that at that concert when I was seven years old. And what did he do with his voice there? Let me figure it out.” And as an adult with an amount of knowledge to be able to break down a vocal performance and say, “Oh, this is what he’s doing with his voice and this is how he’s doing it 300 nights a year.” And so my first concert was John Michael Montgomery, when I was four or five. So ‘90s country is surely there and also, it’s just dug up old memories. I feel like I’m a jukebox at this point. Like, if the boys can play it, I’ll sing it: “Let’s do it.” But that era of listening to alt-country, I think, still hangs around for me a little bit. I’m able to kind of tap into this way and break up my voice in spots and bring this gravelly nature [resulting] from doing something with a little more rock influence for a long time. And so I think it really has been a lot of pulling that back, like pulling that layer off of that color of that growl or the gravel, and seeing what that pure voice sounds like again.
Yeah, like the voice of “honky tonk at opening hours,” before it’s covered in smoke and grease. Let’s talk a bit about the songwriting. Are you the main songwriter of the band?
Yeah, pretty much. Everything up to this point has pretty much been me. But saying that, as soon as it’s written and I have a first demo, it goes straight to the guys. So we pick it apart and make changes. So it’s collaborative.
The new tune “Can’t Escape the Rain” uses the imminent summer tropical storms of Florida rolling through to change everything in life. Are you conscious of trying to put the listener in a specific place or environment when you write?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s all figurative, right? I’m trying to capture a piece of time. For a lot of times, it’s for me—and sometimes I try to take myself out of the perspective when I’m writing and write from somebody else’s perspective; but still capture that moment in time for them. And, it’s a feeling, right? And so you’re trying to capture a feeling. So what goes into that feeling when you have something as pure as a memory? What do you think about? “Well, it was it was raining that day. I remember the ground smelled like wet grass.” Or, in Florida: “The ground smelled like wet pavement, with steam rolling up from the ground.” I think for that song, specifically, it was a figurative idea of nothing’s going your way. You can’t escape the rain, nothing can: it just keeps pouring down on you. But also that simple universal idea of that physical state of when it’s raining.
Let’s talk about your shows and tours. Are you doing national and regional tours? How many shows do you think the band plays in a year?
In a year? I’d say probably somewhere around 60.
Which is a fair number of shows, considering you are no longer in a place of less obligations like you were just 10 years ago.
Yeah, and just to look back, a lot of the songs on Wheel of Bliss talk about that. I had hung up a lot of this stuff: like of a marriage and a house and a family and a dog and the American Dream, and going back to it as a safe place after going through that transition and being able to put myself into those songs. But going back to this question, just last week we were in Tallahassee, Savannah and Charlotte. And the week before that, we were in the panhandle. So we really set out this year to try to get out of town more. We’ve got some places, like a spot called Over Yonder in Savannah, who’ve been really good to us. They try to bring us up once a month.
I guess you’re getting good enough feedback from the audiences where the decision to press the album on vinyl was brought into play.
Yeah, exactly. We had a great time last week and we set out this year to try to get out of town more. And I think we’re succeeding with that. We are going to maybe try and do a longer run in the fall. But we’re grassroots. We’re doing it all ourselves, so we’re running a F-150 and a trailer. It ain’t nothing fancy but we are getting things done.
“Heat Fest” is the vinyl-release party for Wheel of Bliss and features performances by Dean Winter & The Heat, Rambler Kane, Patsy’s Daydream, Billy Gilmore, Brett Bass and Rex Putnam and takes place at 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 1 at Intuition Ale Works. Tickets are available here. You can follow Dean Winter & The Heat @deanwinterandtheheat.