Denham and McCombs were founding members of the country-rock band Coaltrain, and the group was looking to record its first CD. Denham is the groups lead vocalist and fiddle player while McCombs mans the bass and handles some of the harmony chores.
Wheeling is a great music town with a great history in country music, Denham says. It was home to the Wheeling Jamboree starting in the early 30s and some of country musics biggest acts got their start there.
But when you’re in the country music game, Nashville is the place to be so we made the decision we would have to go to Nashville to give Coaltrain a chance, he continues. And thats what we did.
The members of Coaltrain packed up and headed south following in the footsteps of such legends as Grandpa Jones, Hawkshaw Hawkins,Wilma Lee Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan along with contemporary acts like Brad Paisley and Tim OBrien all of whom enjoyed early success playing in and around the Wheeling area.
Some acts are still discovered locally, but we just felt that Nashville was a more logical choice for us, Denham recalls. And we’ve been fortunate to have some success here in Music City.
It’s a modest conclusion. Denham and his gang recorded their eponymous debut album in 2006, and then kicked around town for awhile playing local gigs before getting a big break late in 2007. Ironically, Coaltrain was slotted as the opening act for Neal McCoy back home at Wheeling’s Wesbanco Arena.
We had done well in Wheeling before we left, Denham explains, but I think moving to Nashville and recording the album allowed us to get some airplay back home in Wheeling. And that opened some doors to help us land the opening slot for Neal.
Within three months, Coaltrain was back in Wheeling this time with another friend in tow, Denham’s connections working on the Big & Rich tour in 2007 in between Coaltrain gigs had led to a friendship with the duo’s opening act Cowboy Troy. When Big & Rich decided to scale back on touring in 2008, Denham invited the country rapper on the road for another gig in Wheeling, and a partnership was born.
We played a sold out show with him, and got a great reaction from the crowd, Denham remembers. And I think he was excited to see what we could do so we learned the rest of his set and went on the road together.
We were the opening act at most shows, and then after a break, we would back him up on his own set.
The remainder of 2008 saw Coaltrain touring the country with Cowboy Troy in support of his sophomore album ,Black In The Saddle. This included opening slots for Pat Green, T. Graham Brown, Jamey Johnson and James Otto on some dates, and led to the band making solid connections with other country acts including Dan Evans, a new country star best known so far for his appearance on the reality television show The Biggest Loser.
It (touring with Cowboy Troy) opened some doors for us, Denham says, and for that we’re grateful. But I think it also showed us that we were definitely a viable act on our own. We’ve been able to book return dates to a lot of the clubs we played last year appearing on our own.
And, as Denham explains, it’s led to a close partnership with Evans.
We’re working together to book dates on the side with Dan, and we’ll be touring with him as the opening act and backing him up on his own set, Denham says. We really like what he does and respect where he is coming from as an artist, and we are excited about doing this tour with Dan.
Coaltrain has come a long way from those days playing the working-class bars in and around Wheeling. They’ve played arenas and some of the top clubs and casinos in the United States after appearing in more than 35 states last year alone.
I look back at all we’ve done and I honestly know it was the right choice to come here (Nashville), Denham says. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we had stayed in Wheeling, and it’s been an amazing ride.
Coaltrain has seen many changes along the way including the loss of three of the original members that moved to Nashville from Wheeling, but that amazing ride will continue in 2009 as Denham and McCombs soldier on along with guitarist Jeremy Holt and drummer Rudy Miller. In addition to touring as Evans supporting act, the band will be headlining their own dates in 2009, supporting their sophomore album,“How I Roll”.
Obviously, we’d love to breakthrough with a hit and get some airplay, and we love Nashville and the opportunities we’ve had here, but we’re also a pretty stubborn bunch, he laughs, and we aren’t afraid to stay out on the road and do what it takes to push this album on our own.
If Coaltrain’s history is any indicator, you can bet that’s exactly what they’ll do.