The popularity Nathaniel Rateliff has received since the release of the debut album of his latest project, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, was a long time coming for many music fans wanting something real. Real, as a quality in musical acts, can be hard to describe, but it is easily recognized as missing in many of the band’s neighbors on the Billboard charts.
The real runs deeper than just the husky quality of the singer’s appearance, whose hairy chest can be found on the cover of their debut disc. It’s deeper than the man’s voice, which runs the gamut from whispers to screams, often in the same song. It may run deeper than even his roots, a childhood anchored both by the hardscrabble life he had as the offspring of a rural Missouri family, and the church in which he spent much of his childhood.
While it may be difficult to pinpoint where this quality comes from for Rateliff, it’s clear that his upbringing among the more rustic areas of the Show Me State left a lasting impact on the singer’s approach to handling the newfound popularity that surrounds his band’s music.
“Yeah, my dad and his side of the family were … I wouldn’t say hillbillies, but they were this huge family all living in one tiny house,” Rateliff remembers. “We kind of grew up with the same mentality that they had when it came to money, but we just didn’t happen to be totally broke, and didn’t have that big of a family.”
He continues, “I am now in a position where I’m trying to help out my friends and family back home, since they are still broke. It’s kind of an amazing thing to find that I can try to help people out now. The happiest you’ll ever be from making money is sharing it with those that don’t have it.”
Growing up in the middle of nowhere — or as some politicians call it, Real America — isn’t as bad as it sounds. Yes, Rateliff’s family household was one that lived paycheck-to-paycheck, but whose wasn’t? And while his childhood wasn’t full of scenes from generic country songs, featuring trips to the fishin’ hole and ogling waitresses at the neighborhood Dairy Queen, every now and then he is able to surprise new friends with tales of his early years.
“Well, there wasn’t a whole lot to do, so you just end up embracing the boredom. It was nice growing up in the middle of nowhere, because you knew that if you ever complained about being bored, your folks would threaten to find something for you to do. ‘What are you doing sleeping in the house in the middle of the day? Get out of here!’ So I spent a lot of time as a kid just wandering the woods and singing to myself. You end up appreciating a lot of the landscape and shooting squirrels.”
“People sometimes say, ‘Wait, you ate squirrel?’ and I have to remind them that I come from Missouri,” Rateliff says with a laugh.
A background in forest exploration and youthful introspection may not be what you would expect behind the architect of the most exuberant party album of the past year. The eponymous debut record from the band was somewhat of a departure for the singer. While still holding true to the folksy promise shown in the 2010 solo release In Memory of Loss — which was a critical darling, but disappeared without making a dent commercially — the tracks found on the 2015 release bring to mind a finished product that Muscle Shoals would have been proud to claim. From the album’s opening track, the band’s current single “I Need Never Get Old,” are gifted songs that meld a dirty funk-soul beat to lyrics that could be taken as almost hymnal under the right circumstances.
And, of course, there is the most unexpected hit of last summer in “S.O.B.” The dark lyrics underscore the story of a man handling both a bad breakup and an unwanted case of the DTs with copious amounts of alcohol, and yet it somehow was embraced by both club-goers and Clear Channel radio stations, both of whom overlooked the words of the song to make it the rock jam of last year.
“People’s response to it has been pretty funny,” Rateliff relates with a laugh, “considering what the song is actually about. I know that, even the first show that I ever played it at, everyone jumped up dancing and the women were screaming along with the words. I thought, ‘That’s weird. I didn’t think anyone would actually like this.’ I was just trying to be a goofball.”
So maybe Rateliff is just an incredibly talented goofball made good, or maybe he’s just a country boy from Nowhere Special, Missouri who took the components given to him from his backwoods raisin’ to rise above those humble beginnings. But as he rolls into Charleston to play yet another festival on his summer tour schedule, it has become clear the horns we will hear swelling behind his visceral lyrics throughout the gardens at Middleton Place are the first of many headlining gigs the singer has here in the near future.
“All of the things that we have had the opportunity to do in the past year, it was all just amazing,” Rateliff says. “People are into what we are doing, so we are just trying to do as much as we can while we can. Everyone isn’t going to like us forever, so we have to get it while it’s hot!”
“When we were making this album, we had no idea it would be as huge as it has become. I had written a bunch of songs that I was really proud of, but I didn’t have my hopes up for this record. Now that I’ve put out a hit record, I’m responsible for it. Now I’m responsible to continue to work, since people actually liked it.”