Heidi Guinn, a guitarist for Vegas-based indie band Dusty Sunshine, arranges this gang of colorful, handmade clay fridge magnets on the coffee table. A bowl of spaghetti with a fork, a bright sunflower with leaves, a green cowboy boot with a tiny spur, and most with the band’s name in little rolled clay letters. Far from truck-stop trinkets, these were unique works of art. “It takes me about five hours to make each one of these and I’ve never seen any other band do anything like them,” she says, beaming. “They go for $5 each, and they always sell out.” Add in the cost of materials and Guinn is at it for less than a buck an hour.
The magnets embody the group’s exuberant, endearingly loony do-it-yourself ethos, but that ethos has pushed the now all-woman ensemble (bassist Jason Aragon left in April, due to time constraints, and will be replaced by Aly Unna) from formation in 2010 to a band with two CDs, a well-received Southwestern U.S. tour and a steadily growing Vegas fan base.
Their sound is clearly influenced by a broad spectrum of Western music, but defining the product is no easy task. Guinn says they “started off, very briefly, doing doo-wop stuff, but then we quickly fell into our current sound.” Their instrumentation comes straight from the villages of Celtic Appalachia: mandolin, violin, guitar, autoharp, but their complex, strong harmonies, each of the five carrying different parts, bring the clear ring of a Southern gospel revival tent, albeit with lyrics inspired by everything from the darkness of Sylvia Plath to their own struggles with faith.
“Coming up with the basic structure of a song is fairly easy,” violinist Megan Wingerter says. “It gets tough when we’re putting together five different vocal parts.” But the result is richly layered and has the added benefit of needing little or no artificial amplification or production. “If we had to apply a genre, I guess we’d go with Americana,” says keys player Chani Riiell Leavitt.
Having scored an invitation to play at NXNE 2013, a weeklong mega-festival in Toronto, they realized it was an opportunity to get some publicity, not only for themselves but also for Las Vegas’ music scene. They also realized that getting there was prohibitively expensive.
“We thought about doing a Kickstarter campaign,“ guitarist Sommer Soll says. “But Kickstarter is starting to lose some of its appeal. Plus, you’re almost guaranteed to piss off a friend or relative if you push too hard.”
Instead, they came up with something akin to a small-town carnival that will not only raise travel money, but also showcase other local bands in a unique way. “There will be a kissing booth, barbecue, face-painting, bands playing, a huge raffle—it will be crazy!” Guinn says. “We’re even having a date auction.” Wingerter and Leavitt, who are offering themselves up for the auction, clarify: “We get to pick where the date will happen.”
“There are so few bands [that] have made it out of Vegas,” Soll says. “Vegas is in sort of a blind spot. It’s all about getting the word out—not only to out-of-towners, but also to those in our own city.”
Dusty Sunshine will be touring as they go, which will help keep them topped off with gas and burgers all the way to Toronto. But what happens after they get back?
“Obviously we’d love to make it big,” Wingerter says. “Regardless, we still love what we are doing. We have enough songs to put out another CD, and we’ll keep on playing as long as it works.”