Country. Family. Fun.
It was so packed for local honky-tonk band Trailer Trash's sixth annual "Have Yourself a Trashy Lil' Christmas" show that some people were turned away from the Downtown inn known as Lee's Liquor Lounge, 101 Glenwood Ave., in late December.
It was business as usual for Trash. In their dozen years as house band at Lee's, they've jammed the place countless times. The key to the band's longevity and their fans' loyalty might well lie in the fact that they don't treat their shows as business, however.
For Trash and their fans, this is family. And it's fun.
"There's much less of a wall between fans and us than in other bands," guitarist, vocalist Dan Gaarder said.
Guitarist-vocalist, Nate Dungan, passed around the Jingle Stick at the bash. The Stick is a musical instrument constructed of two hubcaps and a pole that closely resembles a stop sign. Grabbing the shiny pole with both hands, takers took swigs of beer and stepped up in pairs, gyrating to the music while contributing a metallic clanging to the proceedings.
"The Jingle Stickconnects the band to the audience," said Gaarder.
He admits that he modeled the first Stick after one that appeared in the movie "Conan the Barbarian." "[It] looked cool," he explained.
The thing really completing the connection of the band to its fans is the music, of course.
Trailer Trash has blazed an alternative-country path in local clubs with their blend of country covers and original rootsy compositions.
Said Dungan, "It's about cosmic American music. Consequently, we don't restrict ourselves to playing a certain type of music. We don't believe in boundaries because that's so boring."
The group plays a smattering of everything from Duke Ellington to Johnny Cash to Chuck Berry - "We try to steal from the best," Dungan deadpans.
The group counts 1,400 songs in their repertoire, and at the holiday fest the 40-some selections they played crossed genres, including country, honky-tonk, swing, blues, rockabilly and rock.
Said Gaarder, "I really like when we can take an old country song that's been forgotten and make it come alive. You see a twinkle in people's eyes. They think, 'Gosh, I haven't heard this in forever.'"
Trash started playing alternative country before the anti-Nashville trend caught on in local bars and clubs back in the mid-1990s. Gaarder grimaced at the notion that the musical ground under the band has shifted so much that they're now mainstream.
"There's no such thing as underground anymore," he said, shaking his head.
Dungan said though it's hard to gauge what impact the band has had on the local music scene, there's some anecdotal evidence indicating Trash has made a pretty big splash: "We've sold a lot of beer.
"Everybody who's ever come down [to a Trash concert at Lee's] is a part of that legacy. They're instant family."
Meanwhile, back at Lee's
A lit-up sign mounted above the stage read "Santa's Service," complementing a patch sewn onto band members' button-down maintenance-employee shirts. Even the upright bass was dressed as Santa, with chubby red legs extending out from the strings while bassist Andy Olsen plucked at its belly and sang in a deep, low voice that matched the bass's own subterranean tones. Emcee and bandleader Dungan wore a cherry-red cowboy hat, while pedal steel player Randy "Tyrone" Broughton sported a t-shirt that spelled out "S-a-n-t-a."
The audience was just as festive, especially the troupe of 20 gleeful elves who brought along a little North Pole fashion with red and green ensembles: leaf-shaped tunics, droopy hats, copper bells and pointy shoes.
An all-ages crowd let loose on the dance floor to a not-so-polka cover of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," comprised of the whiny twang of pedal steel, fuzzed Fender Telecaster, rocky upright bass, a kid-sized drum set and audacious vocals by Dungan, Gaarder and Olsen.
Locals and out-of-towners consider Trailer Trash's holiday show a vital part of their seasonal traditions.
Muffy Mishler, visiting from California, said, "I love them. I've been following them for years, and I'm here to celebrate."
Michelle Guinn came from Iowa. "They make Christmas," she said. "They're so unique. They just make it fun."
Wisconsin's Don Olson, who was at his first Trash show, said, "I'm wowed. You don't hear this kind of music anywhere else. I don't think Clear Channel books them."
Trash is also a mainstay for locals such as suburbanite Jaime Kastner, who started the elf tradition six years ago at the band's first Christmas concert. He works pouring concrete with Classic Concrete Company, which brings him to Downtown businesses such as WCCO-TV.
"Every place I've moved to, I always come back here. I love the people here," he said.
Lee's owner Louis Sirian said the Christmas show's popularity is due to the band's hard work. Trailer Trash, Sirian said, has powered Lee's transformation from less-than-cool to chic.
"Trailer Trash is very essential in the making and heart of this bar," Sirian said. "They were the original band that started out here, and they really tried to promote it. You can see the results. They started the music scene for me, and I think it started here for them, too.
"They're gifted musicians," he said.
Sirian, who's approaching 70, gets sentimental when discussing the group.
"It'll be their place after I'm gone," he said.
Trash carved out the bar's rockabilly niche in the local music scene, playing weekly on the same stage in the same spots, providing the rootsy soundtrack for a generation of club-goers. Unlike bands that move from bar to bar and club to club, they stayed put, building a Wednesday following on what is traditionally an off night in clubs.
"[Louis is] a generous man. He was the first guy to give us the house. He wouldn't let us go even when weren't making any money for them," Gaarder said.
For now, the band continues to play the first Friday of the month at Lee's. Dungan said that the group might cut back on those gigs at some point this year, however. He also said the group might record their fifth album this year, though no firm details were available for either plan.
Dungan said that no matter what, the group will continue to perform their Christmas show and that their guiding vision will remain clear: "The purpose of this band is to rock out and to sleep in our beds," he said.
"We play dance music for working people in a club. That is our chief game and purpose in life."