Working Man: A Conversation With Nathaniel Rateliff

Shoulder to shoulder with four good friends, sweat tickling my back under my leather jacket, we waited. We knew he would return. The five of us were packed into The Ready Room on a Tuesday night at the sold-out Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats show. He had played for a steady hour and a half and thanked the crowd for being so kind.

“Damn, it’s good to be home,” the Missouri native yelled before he and his seven-man band waved and strolled offstage. I looked around at the fans and noticed a huge age range. Fathers in their 50s were there with college-aged sons. Tattooed 20-somethings were huddled in front of the stage. Excited 35-year-old women clutching their bags close to their chests were standing next to their husbands. If you hadn’t seen the stage, smelled the weed and stepped in the spilled Stag, you might have thought you were at church. And with the way the crowd summoned Rateliff back onstage, you might have thought it was a revival.

Somewhere in a corner, someone started singing the bridge to Rateliff’s most recent hit, “S.O.B.”—the same song that launched the veteran songwriter’s starship the night he shimmied across the stage on “The Tonight Show,” prompting a bevy of festival bookings, a hit single and a world tour. A few more people in the packed house picked up the chorus.

Soon, the entire crowd was chanting the song in unison, stomping their feet and clapping their hands in a show of appreciation I’ve only ever seen at Springsteen shows. With the release of the group’s eponymous album, Rateliff had arrived, transforming the weight-of-the-world, workingman songs of his past and giving them a dance beat and a soul spirit.

I knew when he came rambling back onstage that I needed to talk to this man and ask him where a rough-neck kid from the sticks learned to sing like a rock ‘n’ roll James Brown.

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Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

Tell us about growing up in the Midwest.
I’m from Hermann, Missouri. But when I was a kid my parents moved around a lot. We lived in Kansas City when I was really young, and then we moved to Washington and Wentzville. We lived with aunts and uncles for a while and finally found a spot in Hermann. I loved growing up in the country. All of our favorite swimming holes were a short drive away and we spent most of our time hanging out on gravel roads.

How did growing up in the country influenceyour music?
When you grow up in the country, you have a different perspective on a lot of things. You have to learn to embrace the boredom. If you told your parents you were bored, then they’d find you something to do, ya know? [Laughs]

I spent a lot of time as a kid just walking around alone, hanging out by my favorite creeks just taking in nature. I always had a song in my head. Nothing specific, but I was always making noise.

I also grew up in a hardworking family, and I like to think about what we’re doing as hardworking music for hardworking people. When you grow up in rural America, you have this understanding: I worked from the time I was a young kid and that’s just because that’s what everybody did. It wasn’t some horrible child labor thing. We thought, “Well, if we want something better than what we’ve got, we’re gonna have to work for it.” I liked working hard and working with my hands. I think that really shaped me as a writer.

Do you feel like your sound changed a lot when you brought the Night Sweats together?
I wrote all of the songs on my own and had a vision for the band. But now that we’re a solid group,the songs definitely sound a little bit different. Everyone’s contributing.

I heard you and your bandmates give each other tattoos on tour. Is that true?
[Laughs] We have, but nothing very good. I do have a Missouri tattoo—an outline of the state with a river running through it and a dot where Hermann is.

Your performances are high-energy with a lot of crowd engagement. Tell us about connecting with the crowd during a performance and the difference between that and songwriting.
I always considered myself a songwriter before a performer. Even when I was younger and I had an indie rock band, I always thought of myself as a writer. As a performer, I always thought, “I’m too chubby to be up here.” [Laughs] But now, performance is an important part of playing the live show.

I like to think that music transcends a lot of things, for all of us. We get to have this shared human experience together. The songs aren’t mine anymore. They’re ours. To see people have an emotional response to something you wrote about personally and then connect it to something
they’ve felt personally, it really feels like we’re all in it together. It becomes part of their story, too.

This story comes from ALIVE’s Let’s Come Together issue. Read more from that issue online, or find where you can pick up a copy around St. Louis.

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