The Charlotte duo was in the middle of a scene that would chill the spines of many would-be musical road warriors. Forget Easy Rider. This was no easy crowd. It was an army of drunken devils hell-bent on bringing the sky down on Jennifer Lauren and Von Bury's new alt-country act Diamonds and Whiskey.
The Dakota Territory Riders motorcycle club had converged on a tiny tavern in Sturgis, South Dakota, as they do each year, to celebrate their love of the outlaw spirit and their chosen land. In the shadow of Devil's Tower — the nation's first national monument and the structure used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind — the Riders were among the 63,000 bikers who had come to Sturgis for two weeks of drinking, riding, best-tits-and-ass contests and debauched fuel-injected, liquid-cooled insanity. In an era of bearded city hipsters who hit their favorite craft brewery on cappuchino-colored scooters, these men and women are the vestiges of a deadly and pure breed. They're demons riding the final fringes of the American frontier, and they had come to rock.
Two weeks later, Lauren, 34, and Bury, 42, are sitting at an outside table in front of Akahana Restaurant in Plaza Midwood, picking at a plate of edamame. The couple are back home and preparing for an upcoming appearance at the Matthews Alive Festival on Sept. 3. Diamonds & Whiskey will take the stage at 1 p.m., on a bill with '90s country star Sammy Kershaw. Safely back on their home turf, Lauren and Bury remember the adrenaline, fight-or-flight rush of having to entertain a roomful of howling bikers.
The scariest part was the silence.
"They stood there, dead quiet, and stared at us with their arms crossed," Bury says, mimicking the bikers' Sons of Anarchy-like poses as the duo began their set. With faces as hard as stones, the bikers were not giving an inch to these two outsiders from the cushy, codependent South.
Lauren is more forthright about the feelings she had while on the stage.
"It was terrifying, actually," she says, picking at her edamame as she remembers D&W's baptism by fire. "Playing for thousands of hard bikers, I feel like I could play for anyone now."
The proof is in the footage. A clip of the duo's Sturgis performance of "Sugarstick" was still burning hot on YouTube three weeks after the gig, clocking in at more than 1,000 views a day. "We will drive 2,000 miles to play for you again if you guys wanna see us again," Bury bellows to the crowd after having won them over with the duo's potent alt-country.
The reponse is bedlam.
"You could see them slowly come around over the course of the set," Bury says, smiling. "They'd raise their drink if they heard a line they felt. They'd look at each other and nod."
In the course of a single set, the stony facade of the Dakota Territory Riders gave way to connection, and then acceptance. A major rite of passage for any road-hugging act had been won with flying motorcycle jacket colors.
It's not hard to see why. Diamonds and Whiskey offer an undeniable one-two punch: A diamond-hard guitar attack that would cut through anything, together with good, old-fashioned, late-night, bourbon-soaked country songwriting born of human suffering that would make Patsy Cline proud.
Lauren was the recipient of that suffering: a country girl who's been through hell and back, eventually finding herself with a rocker from Louisiana who cut his teeth on punk, Britpop and shoegaze-style guitars. Their mutual passion for music resulted in a sound that's unlike anything else.
- Von Bury (left) and Jennifer Lauren of Diamonds & Whiskey. (Photo by Justin Kates)
Nestled in Burke County, the Henry River Mill Village is now a ghost town, a fading echo of the area's early 20th-century industrial heyday. The old mill and surrounding 72-acre village is on the National Registery of Historic Places, and was more recently used as the backdrop for scenes in the 2012 movie The Hunger Games. The village is also where Lauren's story begins.
Country idyllic, the setting was drenched in pain for Lauren. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she had to quickly learn to navigate the rough waters of their new relationships. Lauren's mother was supportive of her daughter's musical inclinations, but her father — who, perhaps ironically, was the musician in the family — wasn't. His new wife brought serious religion into the mix, and radio was banned in their home, replaced by a steady diet of hymns.
Dress was conservative, hair had to be up, skirts had to extend below the knee.
In the mid-'90s, Lauren fell ill, and there wasn't a doctor in the Carolinas who could figure out what was wrong. Was it cancer? Was it something else? She went blind in her right eye, and deaf in her right ear, both only temporary; at one point she couldn't recognize her own mother. The lasting emotional effects of the illness were deep.
"I thought I was losing my mind," she says, speaking quietly of the experience.
Years passed, and Lauren learned to live with her condition, which remained undiagnosed. Her talent for music became a lifeline for her sanity. At UNCC, she joined the choir, which took her to Europe at one point. It was during college in Charlotte that she got a taste of modern rock and hip-hop. "One of my biggest influences is Eminem," she says. "Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, and a lot of alternative music."
A few years after leaving school, where she studied civil engineering, Lauren gave birth to a son, and at 25 she finally got a diagnosis for the illnesses that had plauged her since age 12. It was Lyme Disease. A simple tick bite had likely been what consigned the young girl to years of misery.
"I remember the doctors saying things like, 'You can't have Lyme Disease, this is the Carolinas,'" Lauren says. "They didn't even have the test for it here."
In the nine years since she was diagnosed, Lauren's had to incorporate into her life periodic trips to the emergency room and a permanent regimen of suppressive drugs. The relentless grind of emotional and physical obstacles, along with the challenges of motherhood, awoke in her an indomitable drive. Under unspeakable heat and pressure, lumps of coal become the world's hardest and most precious gems: diamonds.
"It was gonna be music," Lauren decided resolutely, "one way or another."
Von Bury had been in bands nonstop for 31 years. The New Orleans-born musician moved to Charlotte in 1995, and his journey is typical for a Gen X alternative rocker. Growing up in the Metaire suburbs in early 1980 ("David Duke was 10 blocks away from my house," he grimly recalls), Bury was destined to be a rogue. While his peers were turning into metalheads or obligatory Lynyrd Skynard fans, Bury was raised on his older sister's collection of art rock: Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. A steady stream of post-punk and new wave sealed the deal.
"I was nuts for the B-52's," Bury says. "So of course, every jerk in high school assumed I was gay, and I had to fight my way through."
Over the years, Bury developed a relentless work ethic. By the time he got to Charlotte at 20, he was not going to be swayed. His years in the Charlotte music scene have seen him alternately play guitars or drums for bands including Chelsea Daggers (which also included Radio Lola's current axeman Chris Hendrickson) and Lovesucker, a blues duo he formed with vocalist Crystal Crosby. That duo, it could be argued, was the prototype for Diamonds and Whiskey — the Opal to David Roback's Mazzy Star, if you will.
A break in Lovesucker's momentum led to Bury seeking musical projects to keep him occupied in the summer of 2016. He was taken by a simple Craigslist ad: female country singer seeking instrumental support for covers and brewery gigs.
"It was kinda out of my wheelhouse," Bury says with a shrug, "but what the hell?" He invited the singer to his studio to run through some tunes.
From the moment Bury met Lauren, he knew there was something special in their chemistry. "She showed up for practice last summer," Bury remembers. "It was 110 degrees in the room and she hung an IV bag on a metal hanger and rehearsed for two-and-a-half hours."
To this day, Bury calls the metal hanger that remains in the rehearsal room the "No Excuses Hanger."
It was quickly evident that covers weren't going to cut it for this duo. Lauren presented Bury with the first song she had ever written, "Whiskey Down," which details an early relationship that ended when her lover chose a bottle over her.
Bury presented a new guitar approach to the country song: an ear for snaky, atmospheric riffing that was more swamp than Appalachia. The results were inspiring, and Lauren presented more songs out to her new partner. Another one, "25 to Life," was written about a family member who wrestles with addiction and its consequences; Bury hammers it home with atmospheric slide guitar that recalls Daniel Lanois' work with Emmylou Harris on her 1995 album Wrecking Ball. "Hands Down" moves with an angular, hypnotic guitar melody that conjures Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" before slamming into a country chorus that would send Shania Twain back to school, as Lauren swings between sweet and snarling.
Diamonds and Whiskey's upcoming Dark Country Voodoo is all but in the can. Recorded just eight weeks into the duo's formation, the songs came together in the Seattle studio of Graig Markel, who produced the album and also plays lap steel guitar on it. Though Bury plays both guitar and drums on the record, the duo has enlisted Chris McKinney as the touring drummer, along with occasional member Shealee Cousino on violin.
Bury and Lauren's chemistry may seem like an overnight lucky success, but anyone who's spent years trying to make something happen in music knows that's not the case. It's a slow process of paying dues, knowing a good thing when it happens, and jumping on it. Not to mention playing whatever hands you're dealt with grace and guts.
Fired up by their recent conquest in Sturgis, Diamonds and Whiskey are now ready for pretty much anything.
"We're not gonna stop. We sleep in the van. We'll play anywhere," Bury says. He turns to Lauren. "What she brings is something totally special."
She smiles. "He's my best friend," Lauren says. "I can't imagine doing this with anyone else."