Local band Dirt Train adds southern-style rock n’ soul to the great North

Dirt Train released their Motown influenced EP “Dead Beat Shake” on Nov. 27.

Sterling Jensen, lead singer of the five-piece soul and rock band Dirt Train, poses for a portrait in Five Watt Coffee in Minneapolis. Jensen helps organize live music on Friday nights at the coffee shop.

Jerusa Nyakundi

Sterling Jensen, lead singer of the five-piece soul and rock band Dirt Train, poses for a portrait in Five Watt Coffee in Minneapolis. Jensen helps organize live music on Friday nights at the coffee shop.

Ksenia Gorinshteyn

In a singer-songwriter dominated environment, Dirt Train infiltrates the Twin Cities music scene with a Motown feel and a rock n’ soul vibe, harkening back to the days of Muscle Shoals music. 

Before the formation of the band, vocalist and rhythm guitarist Tucker Sterling Jensen and drummer Ben Peterson found themselves at Gluek’s Restaurant and Bar in Minneapolis improvising “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

“It was probably the first time I played with [Peterson] on the drums ever,” Jensen said. “I just met him and I started playing the guitar and [he] just put it right where it needed to be, fell right into it. … That was probably the first, ‘OK, this is maybe a thing that we’re going to do.’”

When booking their first gig, the band realized they didn’t have a name. “Dirt Train” stuck after Jensen told the booker the name in a panic. 

The full band, with Andrew Wozniak on lead guitar, Lightnin’ Joe Peterson on the keys and harmonica, and Patrick Nelson on bass, came together in 2016. They played weekly gigs at The Terminal Bar in Minneapolis for almost a year.

“I was like, ‘I have these songs, let’s play exactly what we want to play,’” Jensen said. “It’s great because everyone is just very seasoned right out of the gate, and we can really get stuff off the ground real fast.”

The songwriting process began as the band members discovered their musical styles’ compatibility. Jensen brings the band lyrics and a rhythm. From there, all members collaborate for a true Dirt Train feel.

“[Jensen] is very open to our input,” said Nelson. “He says … ‘Here’s a song, just do what you do with the song,’ and that’s what kind of gave it the flavor. … We all come from different influences and you can hear all of those different influences.”

The trust between all band members to produce an authentic-to-them sound is a testament to Dirt Train’s musical ability. Jensen, in particular, puts a lot of faith into the Twin Cities music community, advocating for local music in almost every way he can. He organizes shows at the 331 Club and Five Watt Coffee and works on a podcast aimed at helping local musicians make it big.

“It would be so exhausting to [write everything] on your own, and if you have a band that’s the ideal,” Jensen said. “You can be young Prince playing everything on everything, but not everyone is Prince. Only Prince is Prince.”

Dirt Train recorded their EP, “Dead Beat Shake,” over the course of two days at Creation Audio in Minneapolis. The project was recorded by one of their good friends, Miles Hanson, and was released Nov. 27 with a show at The Terminal Bar.

“It was packed,” Nelson said. “Everyone was very receptive and it was a thrill for us. … I felt like that was a big coming out party for us. We felt like people were on our side.”

The band provides something unique to the Twin Cities music scene. Their live performances have a grittiness and rawness that is incomparable to other musicians in the area.

“[They have] almost a nonchalant-ness to them that’s very effortless. They’re all just totally in it and … engaging,” said Lena Elizabeth, a local singer-songwriter. “There’s something about it.”

The release of “Dead Beat Shake” is a mark of progress and, in a way, history for the band. Starting in January, Dirt Train will perform every second Wednesday of the month at Aster Cafe in Minneapolis. 

“I ended up sleeping on [Hanson’s] floor on an air mattress 10 years ago,” Nelson said. “Now here we are 10 years later, still working together regularly and making music that we’re all proud of. So yeah, that’s a nice little bonus.”