Take your pick of any number of articles about Nathaniel Rateliff over the past few months, and they’ll all tell you some version of how he’s hit his stride in the retro music renaissance, and how he hasn’t stopped going up, up, up since he and his band The Night Sweats made their The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon debut this month last year. Both of those things are true – Rateliff’s music is foot-stomping and soulful, and his is a classic “toiling musician makes it overnight” story. But what doesn’t necessarily come across in these pieces is why he is suddenly America’s sweetheart.
It’s not just the popular “retro look” that draws the crowds – though the denim, plaid, leather boot and fedora-clad ensemble certainly has that – people are connecting to Rateliff and his crew because they sound like…America. Like home. Musically, it’s country mixed with James Brown; it’s bluegrass with The Rolling Stones and Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds.” Lyrically, it’s the expression of genuine experiences wrapped up in classic themes that makes the songs so appealing.
“Howling at Nothing,” from the band’s 2015 self-titled breakout album, is a perfect example. It’s about holding tight and living through the sadness, and even the anger.
And Rateliff himself seems genuine, like the real deal, despite doing the industry dance and living life on the road for the past year.
Clearly, Rateliff’s music nostalgically recalls the “America” that a lot of people are missing right now, but it doesn’t lack some sick, hard riffs that also say, “Hey, wake up, it’s 2016.”
Born and raised in Missouri, 37-year-old Rateliff originally learned to play and sing in his church, and has worked a variety of blue-collar jobs over the years. So while he’s understandably excited to be able to do things like invest in a restaurant with friends in the Denver music scene, and to be playing a sold-out show at Red Rocks, he’s still grounded in the issues affecting us as a nation. During an emotional moment at Wolf Trap this past spring, Rateliff got choked up about the potential he saw for working Americans with Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate.
“That was the first time I ever donated money to a campaign. And, I don’t know, I was just really hoping that somebody was gonna come along and really care about the working people, not just in the United States, but in the world and you know, be an American leader.”