PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: Tripp Whitney and Jerry Spikula.

Reno country-rockers Tripp Whitney and the Free Labor want you to know: There ain’t nuthin’ badda than a cowboy from Nevada.

That’s the title track of their debut album Cowboy From Nevada, released last November—but also the group’s entire ethos.

“Everything about my life is hard and work, and I think that breeds humility when you do it long enough,” said Whitney, whose given name is Derek McAdow. “I own a house, and I’m just a car-washer. You know what I mean? But I did it through integrity and hard work. To me, that’s Nevada—and I love Nevada.”

Whitney is the band’s frontman and guitarist, and the “Free Labor” is mostly bassist Jerry Spikula, his longtime friend, producer and writing partner. As teenagers at Douglas High School in Gardnerville, the pair joined a rock band led by an older student whom Whitney credits for teaching him to write songs. Music soon became integral to both of their lives.

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Whitney went on to tour the world in a Pantera tribute band, and Spikula left school early to assume the life of a working musician, backing big names and playing as a studio musician; he even once auditioned for Metallica.

“I went to music school in Hollywood, and I lived in my truck and starved and slept in slaughterhouses,” Whitney said. “I finished that year of school and came back. With (Spikula), we played in a Top 40 band and an original band, but he was busy working. And I chose to go a different route.”

Whitney stuck to harder, louder genres in his youth, founding hardcore and metal bands in Reno like Buried and Slap Grama. Meanwhile, Spikula’s wheelhouse grew to include whatever was required of his studio work, although his projects with Whitney, like Rock Animal Cookbook, hewed closer to the rock sound they both knew.

Spikula’s expertise in recording led him to open Abbey West Recording studio in his home in 2013 before moving to a larger space a few years ago.

“It was still at my house, but it was built very small,” Spikula said. “I got this place in 2018 here—it’s like a real actual place. I built it, and (Tripp) helped me, along with a couple other people.”

Whitney often came to Spikula for him to help record and produce his other projects over the years, including his initial concept songs in 2019. Spikula had worked with country artists before, but to Whitney, whose favorite band is KISS, his turn to country music came as a revelation—and as it so often does, it all started with a girl.

“I was trying to write (a song) for this girl, and then she stomped my heart into the ground before I could finish it,” Whitney said. “She played country music, and my guard was down, basically. I just started listening to this music—and then, all of a sudden, I understood it.”

Heartbreak, Whitney said, alongside his life experiences as a single father and small-business owner helped him relate to country-music motifs like celebrating hard work, self-determination and emotional vulnerability, all in ways he hadn’t considered before—musically speaking.

At Abbey West, Spikula directed everything from Whitney’s vocal delivery to his arrangements, while enlisting drummer Bryan Jenkins, strings player Buddy Emmer, backing vocalist Todd Baumgartner and more than a half-dozen other studio musicians to flesh out the album.

“It’s a really ego-free environment,” Whitney said. “I give him the vibe; he’s the personality. ‘So how’s he gonna make this thing start and end? How are we gonna keep you wanting to listen to it?’ That’s what he’s great at. … He can take some of my guitar out and say, ‘We don’t want this lick here,’ and then that song gets finished.”

Added Spikula: “And he’s so quick with writing this stuff. I’m like, ‘We need this,’ and then there’s the verse.”

As the pandemic raged over the next three years, Whitney and Spikula honed their sound and laid out “a career’s worth” of tracks in the Abbey West studio. They sent Cowboy From Nevada to be mastered by Richard Dodd, whose past clients include Freddie Mercury, Jason Aldean and Robert Plant.

Cowboy’s tracks run the gamut of country sounds, with boot-scootin’ outlaw jams like “Country Boys Get Down,” twangy upbeat ballads like “Cowgirl Lovin’ on My Mind” and swampy anthems like “Trucks Tattoos and Trailer Parks.” While the latter is a self-aware stereotype sendup, the album mostly avoids the pitfalls critics lob at “mainstream” country, like too polished, too predictable, not country enough, etc. In moments when a Nashville millionaire might, for example, dispense a canned hard-rock breakdown, Whitney and the gang lean into raspy pedal steel slides or folksy banjo blues.

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But it’s the eponymous “There Ain’t Nuthin’ Badda Than a Cowboy From Nevada” that provides the hook—a catchy song and slogan that defines the band’s whole identity.

“I think Nevada needs some pride,” Whitney said. “I guess you could say it’s our gimmick, but we believe in it sincerely.”

Added Spikula: “And no one else is doing this. There’s always some guy around here who wrote some sort of tune about something in Nevada. You know, whatever; it’s OK. Most of (our) songs will mention something, or some of them will be all about Nevada.”

With the album out on various streaming platforms and self-funded physical CDs, the band’s stated goal—to spread Nevada’s country reputation far and wide—may be working. Tripp Whitney and the Free Labor currently has more than 13,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and Whitney alluded to some initial talks with a record label. Their immediate goals remain practical, though, with Spikula hoping to attract some outside management to arrange tours, and Whitney focused on getting their music on curated Spotify playlists to expand the online reach.

As for bigger aspirations: They want to headline the Reno Rodeo.

“Where are you, Rodeo?” Asked Whitney. “This is your song.”

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