It may be odd to learn, I am thankful for the friendship and respect that grew out of the death of a commonly-loved musician in 2017. A shared interest in the music of Tom Petty brought the talent of the Driveway Thriftdwellers into our studio at WOLX. The members of this Country-Americana band are based across Southern Wisconsin, but lead singer and guitar player Jon Knudson organized a show in Madison, to celebrate the life and music of Tom Petty. It was right around Thanksgiving last year, and just before it, Jon and the band’s bass player, Aaron Collins, promoted the “Thankful for Petty Party” by playing their own rendition of a Tom Petty classic, live on-air. The sound, and feel, reminded me of the melancholy old country music my Mom played on the stereo when I was a kid. It also made me miss those kinds of songs—the well-written, story in every verse, sort of sappy, steel pedal featured kind—and I quickly became a fan of the Thriftdwellers. I wasn’t alone, as the group won a WAMI for Country Band of the Year, earned acclaim for the first album, and was described as having a “Best Of” performance at Summerfest in Milwaukee. One year later, the second Tom Petty Thanksgiving show is in the works, and the guys have also been working hard on their own music, with a second album coming out in November. Jon shared the new music, and took time to talk with me about his love of the Driveway Thriftdwellers. It reminded me why I am thankful for the bank, too.
Maximum Ink: When do you first recall music making an impact on you?
Jon Knudson: I remember early morning, freezing drives into town when I was a kid, just my mom and me. She was going to work, and taking me to kindergarten. “Fishin’ in the Dark” or “Free Fallin’” would be on the radio. I’m not that old, but we didn’t have a cell phone or a computer when I was a kid. We did have radios, and a record player. By the time I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I spent more nights than I can remember with my bedroom door closed, playing along to songs on the radio. My Dad taught me the basic chords, and then we’d sit around and I’d play along while he did the old country songs. Later, I memorized the groove in the record where the guitar solo started in “Just What I Needed” by The Cars, and played it over and over. I also spent hours on the bus listening to “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Wildflowers” on cassette through my Walkman.”
MI: But, music wasn’t the first thing you thought about after high school?
JK: “No! I was actually living in Montana the summer after high school, and my friends showed up unannounced and tried to convince me to move back to Wisconsin, and start a band. I showed them around the mountains for a couple of days, and then we all headed east. Those friends aren’t in this band, but had a big influence on the way I still write and perform today.
This band, the Driveway Thriftdwellers, started in 2012 when I made a somewhat sarcastic post on Facebook asking a friend if he’d like the ukulele back that I’d borrowed from him. Another friend, Stephen Ellestad, chimed in that he played uke and keys, and it’s how we started the band. It turns out, he was also a great bass player, and he took over that instrument in the band. I’d already been playing in a trio with my brother, Ryan Knudson, on pedal steel and another guitar player. Stephen found a solid drummer as well as lead guitar player, Kyle Rightley, who plays in every band in town and can play whatever style of guitar you ask him. As sometimes happens, Stephen ran off to California, and Aaron Collins has played bass ever since. Also, somewhere along the way, Jon Storey became our drummer. The changes have created a cohesive group. We all love music, and now we all feel compelled to do it as long as the songs are there and we’re having fun.”
MI: I know with technology, you can create music together from anywhere. You and your bandmates are from all over, and you also aren’t in the same city, now?
JK: “My brother Ryan and I grew up in Northern Wisconsin. We call it the frozen pizza mecca known as Medford. Kyle is originally from Cortez, Colorado, which is home to the best and biggest burrito I’ve ever only been able to eat half of. Jon is from Valparaiso, Indiana, and we joke that the highest point in the county where he grew up is due to the steadily growing peak of the landfill there. Aaron is from Madison, and still lives there. Jon and Kyle also live in Madison. I live in Milwaukee, and Ryan is in Racine.”
MI: The Driveway Thriftdwellers is releasing a new album in November. I’ve had a chance to listen to it before it’s available to the public. There are two songs I’m really enjoying, “Bad News,” and “Escanaba.” Both have an old country flair, but are catchy and you find yourself walking around humming these tunes. How did you get to this point with your music?
JK: “The effort on this second record was brand new for us. Every song, except one, came into the full-band process in its infancy, and was developed with everyone as a contributor. It’s truly a Driveway Thriftdwellers band album, and it is set to go live digitally, and will be available on CD at the start of November. The Flannel Fest show on Saturday, November 3 at High Noon Saloon in Madison is the kick-off of the CD’s official release. We will also have it on vinyl soon.”
MI: Can you picture the Driveway Thriftdwellers doing this for a long time into the future?
JK: “This is the first time I’ve released a second album with a band, and before we even laid down the first notes, we were talking about album three! We all have a ton of respect for one another and enjoy each other’s company. I’m really proud of the teamwork and focus on a common goal in this band. Everyone is totally laid back too, and I think that comes through in the songs. We are all so excited to see how people respond to these new songs!”
MI: And then the second “Celebration of Tom Petty” show is set for Friday, November 23 at Majestic Theatre in Madison. It sold out last year, and the best memory I have from it is when the entire crowd was singing along at the end. Didn’t that feel wonderful?
JK: “You know, Tom Petty gave everyday people—across generations, and every walk of life—songs we can all identify with, and enjoy. It goes without saying that creating another opportunity to get musicians and Petty fans together again, would be a hit. Yeah, it sold out last year, but we were also able to raise a lot of money for the Madison Area Music Association. We are going to do the same thing this year with another great lineup. We are thankful for Tom Petty, and for every single person supporting our efforts at this show, and our Driveway Thriftdwellers shows.”