Steeped in the musical traditions of the American South, Kentucky-based alt-country songwriter Dave Ernst is set to release his debut LP Hickory Switch, an introspective look into the relationships and experiences that have shaped Ernst’s life. The album, produced by Peter Searcy (Squirrel Bait) and mixed by Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo), blends traditional instruments and inspired angular electric guitar work which lends itself to a familiar yet current sound. Ernst and his live band, the Early Favorites, have been described as “Uncle Tupelo 2.0” and “a goddamn rock and roll mountain”, both labels that Ernst is happy to wear.

The people, places, and stories that come alive in his songs all help to paint the picture of life, lived through heartbreak, joy, betrayal and redemption all while striving to keep the faith. At their core, these songs can stand on their own as stripped-down singer-songwriter tunes, but Ernst & his band wanted to take them elsewhere, keeping it twangy while adding more modern production flourishes along the way. This is a versatile and accessible collection of songs, and a band that would fit equally as well on a bill with Anders Osborne or My Morning Jacket.

Take the title track “Hickory Switch” for example–a reference to a well-documented form of discipline in which children have to go into the yard and pick out their own switch. It’s an authentically southern coming-of-age tale complete with soaring guitars and Ernst’s gravelly, barrel-aged vocals. “Wreckin”–a clever use of the homonym for “reckon”–is a slightly more jangly number, but still delivers plenty of grit & growl as guitars trade licks with barroom piano and a shuffled drum beat

Wearing his influences on his sleeve, Ernst pays homage to his friend Todd Snider with a searing cover of “Rocket Fuel” and a more reserved tribute to R.E.M. with an acoustic cover of the legendary band’s early single “Driver 8.” These aren’t covers for the sake of covers; rather, these two re-imagined works serve to complement the overall feel of the record, and don’t feel out of place for a moment. They were a part of his journey just like the originals contained within–as Ernst says, “Some of my songs have been in the works for years…I am so happy to work them out with [the Early Favorites] and really look forward to playing them live.”

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, but spending many summers in Marion County, Kentucky, allowed Ernst to experience both the the rural and suburban nature of his home state. Music was very much a part of his childhood; his mother sang in the gospel trio The Treble Tones in the 60s and 70s and his grandfather was the guitarist in a traveling country “orchestra” (as he called it) for over 20 years. Ernst’s mother bought him his first guitar as a teenager and he set off to learn every R.E.M. song he could–an influence you can still hear in his music to this day.

Upon developing a strong musical profile in various garage bands in high school, Ernst was ultimately asked to join the seminal Louisville major-label band Big Wheel, fronted by ex-Squirrel Bait singer Peter Searcy, sharing stages with the likes of Big Star during their tenure. Searcy & Ernst went on to form the band Starbilly and chased the major label dream for years recording for both A&M and Atlantic Records. Their indie release on Chicago’s Buzz records was a radio success, and gave them the opportunity to tour the country and play tons of radio festivals where they got to see the best (and worst) of 90s music up close and personal. Once Starbilly eventually faded, Ernst spent his time performing both as a solo artist and with various Kentucky-based bands.

In 2016, Ernst was diagnosed and treated for Thyroid cancer; a potentially devastating life event which threatened to derail his career. Not one to let such a challenge keep him down, he wasted no time in getting back to work after treatment by demoing new material in early 2017. Dave Ernst & the Early Favorites performed their first live show in July 2017, and were signed to Eastwood Records shortly thereafter. The road to and beyond recovery for Ernst is nothing short of inspirational.

Gearing up for the March 1st release of Hickory Switch, Ernst and his band are practical about their goals, taking things one day at a time while enjoying the journey. “We are all having a blast,” says Ernst, “At the end of the day we just want to have a great time and make some music that makes us proud and has meaning to those listening.” Seems like they’re off to a great start doing just that.