The Memphis Dawls have been playing together two or three years, but they still feel like a candidate for best "new" Memphis band of 2012.
The trio — guitarist Holly Cole, violinist Krista Wroten, and cellist Jana Misener — did a local release of an eponymous four-song debut EP last summer, but in the early stages of the group, each member was pretty busy with other projects.
Cole, a singer-songwriter who has long been a fixture among the "Makeshift" collective-of-sorts of local indie-rock bands, recorded a full-length solo album with a studio band that turned, for a time, into a regular one, Holly & the Heathens. Wroten, who was a Heathen, spent a lot of time on the road as a member of Amy LaVere's band. And Misener was a principal figure in the local roots-rock band Giant Bear. But, as the calendar flipped to 2012, Cole, Wroten, and Misener each focused their attention on the Dawls and, in recent months, the band has begun to take off.
Cole, Wroten, and Misener have known each other since they were teenagers and were each a member of the first graduating class at Cordova High School, in 2001. There, Cole first started writing songs. "My band, Pith, was terrible," she says. "It didn't last very long." Meanwhile, Wroten and Misener were in youth symphony and performed in chamber groups together.
After graduation, they their went separate ways: Cole lived out west before returning home to work her way into the local music scene. Wroten and Misener went north for school, with Wroten spending time in a band in Chattanooga afterward, but both eventually joined Cole back home.
"It just happened in a really organic way," Misener says of the trio coming together. "When Krista moved back from Chattanooga, they would play together, and I would play with Holly, and eventually we all three played together. We never practiced for it [initially]. Around the time the Holly & the Heathens album came out, we started practicing and made it a real deal. But this January is when we started going on tour and really promoting the EP."
The Dawls' biggest break came when the group was tagged to open the local Jack White show at the New Daisy Theatre in mid-March. Just a few days before the show, Cole got a call from James Manning, who had booked the group at Otherlands Coffee Bar and was helping line up an opener for the White concert.
"He called me and said, 'Don't get your hopes up, but I've sent them a few different bands,'" Cole remembers. "I was getting my tires changed and thinking, Oh my God, I've got to get home. So I called Jana, and she sent them an email with some videos of us and our press bio."
"An hour or two later we found out [we got the gig] and had separate screaming matches all over the city," Misener says. Cole remembers the show as "electrifying."
"The crowd was so awesome and supportive," Wroten says. "I think they responded to the fact that were from Memphis."
If the show went well, the aftershow went better, when the band took White's manager and other members of his crew to Earnestine & Hazel's and the manager asked them to open the next show in Tulsa.
The White shows have been the highlight of a regional touring schedule that's put the Dawls in different kinds of venues and in front of different crowds, demonstrating a diversity of appeal that makes the group similar to what Wroten has seen playing with LaVere.
"All different kinds of shows," Cole says of the band's touring so far. "Listening rooms, coffee shops, bars, outdoor shows, everything. It can be tough with a three-piece playing in a bar."
Locally and in-studio, the Dawls prefer to play with a drummer (initial drummer Jonathan McLaren has moved to New Orleans) and a trumpet player (Snowglobe's Nahshon Benford), but on the road they're usually just a trio, all that can fit in their car given the instruments they play.
"We have a system," Misener says of making room for her cello when they hit the road. "One of the back seats goes down and one stays up."
"The person in the back is the napper," Wroten continues. "So they take pillows and make a little nest and cuddle with the cello."
This week, the Memphis Dawls will play another high-profile opening slot, with country/folk icon Emmylou Harris at the Levitt Shell, which will put them in front of a large audience likely to respond well to what the group does, which is find a fruitful middle ground between folk-country and chamber pop.
Given the instruments they play, the classical influence that Wroten and Misener bring to the band shades easily into folk/country territory.
"It's somewhat natural to go from a classical kind of background into more of a shuffle/fiddle sound," Misener says. "My family was very bluegrass concentrated. That's what they listened to all the time when I was growing up."
The rootsy material also helps showcase the groups' vocals.
"We started singing together and it was so powerful. That was a huge part of it becoming more country," Cole says. "The three-part harmony lends itself to that."
Emmylou Harris was a key influence.
"When we really started getting serious we were all pretty much obsessed, and I'm sure that we had all previously been obsessed, with the Trio album," Misener says, referencing the classic 1987 album collaboration that brought Harris together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. "We would attempt to cover a song or two from that, though I don't think we ever played one live."
Much of the band's initial repertoire consisted of reworked versions of Cole songs from her solo records, but The Memphis Dawls EP showcases a more unified sound, and future releases will likely expand the cello-violin-guitar template, with Misener working on her upright-bass skills and Wroten employing mandolin and accordion.
After giving the EP a national digital release this summer via iTunes and other platforms, the band is looking to cut a seven-inch single and expand their touring in preparation for a debut full-length album.
"We've got about 95 percent of the material ready for a full-length," Wroten says. "We just have some decisions to make."
The Memphis Dawls, opening for Emmylou Harris
The Levitt Shell, Saturday, September 22nd
8:30 p.m., $25