As a founding member of 25-year-old Athens rock institution Bloodkin, Daniel Hutchens spent a good chunk of the past year looking back on his musical career. Last winter, Hutchens and longtime bandmate Eric Carter made a goal to compile Bloodkin's finest deep cuts and unreleased gems. They sifted and rummaged through stacks of old tapes and discs—many of which date back to the late 1980s—and picked dozens of their favorite finds, which they then assembled into a five-disc, 88-track collection, titled One Long Hustle.
"It was a really fun experience going back through old tapes, reels and CDs, finding forgotten recordings and weird songs," Hutchens says. "Some of the stuff we found in the archives sounded horrible, and some of it was just great."
Since forming in Athens in 1987, Bloodkin has maintained a raw, Southern, blues-rock/soul style and a twangy, emotive tone, from their 1994 debut, Good Luck Charm, through their 2009 studio release, Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again. There's a deep richness to Bloodkin's rock and roll that has never changed.
"At some point, the whole thing about being in a band and writing songs became an integrated lifestyle thing, more than just a career or hobby," Hutchens says. "When you're 20 years old, you write about different experiences than when you're 40. You have experiences. You have friends who die. You go through the good and the bad as you go along. Those are things you don’t fully understand when you're young."
Over the years, Hutchens and Carter, the guitar-strumming frontmen whose friendship goes back to a shared childhood in rural West Virginia, collaborated with various colleagues from the Atlanta and Athens scenes, including members of Widespread Panic and its offshoots. (Panic still performs several Bloodkin tunes regularly.) Although the lineup—and the sounds—have changed, the quality of the music has been consistent throughout.
"If you really dissect it, there's a whole lot of stuff swirling around in my favorite rock music," Hutchens says. "With Bloodkin, there is a lot of good-timey rock and roll stuff, but some songs lean more toward old Southern gospel music… In a way, the music is the closest thing to church, for me. It's not literal, but there is a spiritual thing. We tended to gravitate toward that over the years."
But 25 years is a long time to maintain a friendship, let alone a band, and Bloodkin's spirits haven't always been so high. In 2005, burned out from recording, touring and partying hard, the band nearly came to a complete halt.
"Before we started making [2005's] Last Night Out, I was at a personal low point, and neither of us were in good shape, physically, mentally or emotionally," Hutchens recalls. "Bloodkin was essentially broken up. The guys in the rhythm section had moved away, and we weren't really playing together. There was a lot of disinterest, and there was a lot of substance abuse going on. All sorts of sad stories."
But a friend of the band, veteran Athens musician and producer David Barbe, was determined to spark some new action for Bloodkin. He enlisted bassist Jon Mills (Barbara Cue) and drummer Kyle Spence (Harvey Milk, The Martians) to back Hutchens and Carter for sessions at Chase Park Transduction. Barbe's diligence and insistence put Bloodkin back on track.
"It was like David knew we needed to be assigned a project," Hutchens says. "He knew we needed something to do. Otherwise, we were just hanging around Athens, drinking ourselves into oblivion."
Mills signed on as their permanent bassist. Soon after, the lineup solidified, with the addition of drummer Aaron Phillips (The Skinpops, Liquor Cabinet, Wide Receivers). Longtime Athens multi-instrumentalist and songsmith William Tonks stepped in to handle extra guitar and dobro.
"Playing with the musicians we play with now might be the most fun Eric and I've had in years, and that's really saying something," Hutchens says. "Everything fell into place over the last few years. I really think [this is] the best version of Bloodkin. I couldn't be happier with the sound and chemistry of the band right now."
This weekend, Bloodkin will celebrate the release of One Long Hustle with a sizeable lineup of special guests and a hefty repertoire of fan favorites and original material. The show is the latest in the annual Bloodkin & Friends concert series, a series of casual jam sessions, memorials and fundraisers that began in 2000 shortly after the passing of close friend and band manager Zac Weil.
It's hard to say whether Bloodkin's long-running hustle will carry on for another quarter-century, but Hutchens, Carter and their crew aren't the least bit worried about moving ahead. For now, though, they're taking a moment to marvel at the past.
"A lot of our history is very happenstance," Hutchens says. "There's never been a big plan about anything. It's just turned out really well."