In the fall of 1995, Tammy Ealom only knew two chords — open E and open A. She met a guy named John Hill, guitarist for the Denver indie-pop institution The Apples in Stereo, and he gave her a Hagstrom Electra for her birthday, just before leaving for an Apples tour with Oklahoma alternative psych-rock outfit The Flaming Lips.
“I taught her bar chords and left her with my four track [recorder],” Hill says. “And that was all she wrote.”
By the time Hill got back, Ealom had written roughly 10 songs, and the celebrated power-pop band Dressy Bessy was born. Within a few years, Hill was playing guitar in the group — and falling in love with frontperson Ealom, now his wife, to the soundtrack of their favorite songs.
“When we first started dating, we were listening to a lot of ’60s stuff, like bubblegum pop,” Hill says. “Coincidentally, we were both just starting to get into that — The Monkees and The Hollies, and of course The Beatles and The Kinks and all that sort of stuff, but we had the Nuggets [Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968] box set. That’s kind of where we were coming from, but I come from more hard rock — AC/DC and punk rock, Buzzcocks, Talking Heads, that kind of stuff.”
Ealom’s musical path eventually led to the ’90s college rock of bands like Pavement, Liz Phair and R.E.M., cutting through pop alleyways of Prince, Michael Jackson and Egyptian Lover along the way. “We’re just a mix of everything,” she says. “We’re kinda hard-rocking sometimes, but it’s groovy too. Groovy and dance-y.”
More than eight albums and 25-plus years later, the husband-wife duo behind Dressy Bessy have plenty to hang their hats on. That includes working with famed DIY labels like Elephant 6, Kindercore, Yep Roc and more — playing countless shows all over the world; contributing music to various TV shows and movies; and performing on major late-night talk shows, like Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Building a legacy
Along Dressy Bessy’s journey to stages across the globe, the pair have also stayed busy as parents, and now grandparents. Fittingly, Dressy Bessy will play the fifth-annual Punk Is Dad benefit concert at Oskar Blues in Denver on Saturday, June 17.
The show continues a tradition of raising money for the Dorian De Long Arts and Music Scholarship — named after a local punk-loving father, Thornton High School teacher and activist who died in 2015 — awarded to graduating Colorado high-school students who intend to pursue advanced education in the arts.
Looking back on how the couple balanced musical and family life during their daughter’s younger years, Hill says he and Ealom were so busy making records and playing shows, just trying to survive, that they didn’t stop to think how the whole DIY punk life might be teaching them parenting lessons.
“We just kind of took it as it came,” he says. “We were taking it one day at a time, and we’re still kind of living that way too. When you have a regular job, you just go to your job 40 hours a week, and you know what you’re gonna make. We didn’t have that. From tour to tour, one tour you might come home with $1,000 each, and the next tour you might have to pay $500. We had a certain amount of success, and still do, but we weren’t Aerosmith, you know?”
Ealom also says that doing short tours, coming back home repeatedly instead of getting stretched too thin on the road, helped the couple stay sane — and have something like a normal family life for their daughter, who was a key inspiration.
“It gave me [the] drive to [think], ‘Oh, OK, there’s a way I can, like, build a legacy and have a chunk of something for her later after I’m gone,’” she says. “And I’ve done that, basically.”
ON THE BILL: Punk Is Dad 5 with Fast Eddy, Dressy Bessy and Jaguar Stevens. 7 p.m. Saturday, June 17, The Black Buzzard at Oskar Blues, 1624 Market St., Denver. Tickets here.