Like most bands that weathered the slowdown and lack of gigs during the pandemic, The Vandoliers began ramping up shows and planning tours once it was safe to do so. The Dallas band hit the road with Flogging Molly and Turnpike Troubadours before their most recent spring tour with fellow North Texan Joshua Ray Walker.
On Tuesday, the country rock band was finally heading home when frontman Josh Fleming called a reporter from the van. The tour, he said, had been fun—and, well, they might have gotten a little attention for a show they performed entirely in dresses in Tennessee. But they were looking forward to getting home for a bit before heading to Europe to perform for the month of April.
The band includes Fleming, bassist Mark Moncrieff, drummer Trey Alfaro, fiddler Travis Curry, electric guitarist Dustin Fleming, and multi-instrumentalist Cory Graves.
“We play in Denton on Sunday, then we play Magnolia Motor Lounge, and then Lubbock the next weekend, which will be fun because we’re going out with some of our friends’ bands, and they’re coming out with us,” Fleming said. “And then we have a week off, and we go to Europe.”
It wasn’t always so busy. Their label, Bloodshot Records, got sold amid the fallout of the pandemic. The band left and formed its own label, Amerikinda Records, and produced its self-titled fourth album, which was written before, during, and after the pandemic. The Vandoliers was released in August.
“It stopped for everybody, but it stopped really abruptly for us because we lost our label, we lost our agent, and we just kind of had to rebuild our team and figure out if we were going to keep going,” Fleming said of the pandemic. “It’s like pretty much every band had to do this same dance to an extent—everybody had a legitimate reason to stop and quit, put it down and never come back. A lot of bands did, and then some bands didn’t. We were one of those that didn’t.”
They’ve spent about two years touring post-shutdown, including an Outlaw Country Cruise. But this most recent East Coast tour with Walker gained the six-piece band national notoriety.
“We’re coming back from multiple dates and sellout rooms full of people singing along,” Fleming said. “It was a transitional moment. I think we’re seeing the fruits of our labor to an extent, but also kind of getting that affirmation that what we’re doing is the right thing. It’s been a really cool experience.”
And part of that experience was making a statement against a draconian anti-trans and anti-drag show law signed in Tennessee earlier this month.
As was reported in Rolling Stone and several other national and local publications, the band walked onstage at the Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville, Tennessee wearing dresses. They later auctioned off those dresses on their Instagram page, raising $2,277.69 for two LGBTQA+ nonprofits in Tennessee.
“Cory, our trumpet player and social media guru, is just, like, kind of a little asshole. And he’s really funny, and he’s really smart, and he has a good heart, too,” Fleming said.
Graves told the band that he planned to wear a dress the next night at their gig in Maryville, a town of about 30,000 people just outside of Knoxville.
“This is not off-brand for him—it’s not like anybody was shocked or anything. It’s not really off-brand for us either,” he said. “So we all kind of one by one agree that we wanted to do it. I know when I heard the idea, it was a no-brainer.”
Fleming said that, above all, they wanted to make sure that everyone knew that all fans are welcome at a Vandoliers show.
And given that similar laws are in the works in several other states, that display of solidarity became important not just in Tennessee, but all over the country. (About a week after the Vandoliers did it, lendary indie rock outfit Yo La Tengo performed the second half of their Nashville show in drag.)
Texas is among the states where Republican lawmakers are targeting transgender people and drag performers. Three bills have been filed in the house that would target drag shows (HB 643, HB 708, and HB 1266), and one bill, Senate Bill 1029, would make seeking gender-affirming care illegal, even for adults.
“It was a message that we all agreed on collectively that we would have a positive force of energy to push out, which is really all we want to put out as a band,” Fleming said. “And we might as well stick it to like, you know, 80 locals in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee and make a fun set out of it.”
They chose Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” as their walkout music, and curated a set list that spoke to the message they were trying to send, including “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.”
“There was inherent entertainment value to it, and it was fun, and it was a terrible drag show,” he said. “But I thought we looked great.”
But with all that attention from the singular act of wearing dresses on stage as a form of protest, Fleming said he isn’t at all worried that the band will be forever known for that evening.
“I don’t think this is the end of our legacy,” he said. “I do think that it’s a touchstone for us, like a line in the sand—if you think this (anti-trans and drag show laws) is a good idea, then we’re probably not the band for you. But if you’re open-minded enough to have a conversation, hopefully, we can change that with our music and the way that we live.”
Fleming said they were a little nervous about what they would encounter during the Tennessee show, but they were buoyed by the response as they walked off stage.
“We got a lot of people that were affected positively from this, which is all I ever wanted,” he said. “It was very special.”
And now it’s back to normal. The Vandoliers play Oak St. Drafthouse and Cocktail Parlor in Denton at 1 p.m. Sunday, and the Magnolia Motor Lounge in Fort Worth with The Band Laredo and Mason & the Gin Line at 7 p.m. on March 24.