In a room full of Americana and bluegrass fans, Dumptruck Butterlips draws stares.
At the Halfway to Winfield showcase on March 26, Ashley Zeigenbein, Sarah Dettmer and Megan Hartman wore sequined, striped bodices of red, black and white and striped tights. Singer Chad Smith's dark shirt exposed his tattoos; on his head was a dark newsboy cap. The audience in Crosstown Station looked skeptical as Dumptruck Butterlips tuned its instruments. But raised eyebrows settled and smiles widened as the group laid into the sultry, twangy riffs of its signature song, "Dumptruck Butterlips."
For a performance the next night at the Jazzhaus' Speakeasy Sunday, Hartman and Zeigenbein put on glittery makeup and bright-red lipstick. Smith is dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, but his left arm has a blue-lace wrist wrap. He and Zeigenbein sit next to each other, across from Hartman, on one of the tattered couches in the bar's dressing room.
"We like to get very costumed," Zeigenbein says. A sparkling gem glistens in the middle of her forehead, complementing her array of delicately placed facial piercings. "We've got three hot girls," she says. "Might as well."
"I have to keep up," Smith says, motioning to the delicate fabric on his forearm. "I have to wear these things because if I don't, I look like the dude in a T-shirt."
Zeigenbein, who makes many of the band's costumes, has her own clothing business called Ziggy: Hoop Dance Costumes and Festival Wears. She started sewing when she began practicing hoop dance with Dettmer four years ago. They met at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music. Both women are now professional hoop-dance performers and instructors; they teach classes at aerial-fitness center Learning2Fly.
"She's the kind of girl who always has to be doing something," Smith says of Zeigenbein.
Zeigenbein gives Smith a shy look, shrugs and says, "That's my meditation: the creating."
Dumptruck Butterlips' collective ambition has landed the group where it is today: playing Lawrence's Festy Fest and Mountain Creek's sixth annual Earth Day celebration, playing for money on the campgrounds at Wakarusa, opening shows for spunky bluegrass acts such as Truckstop Honeymoon.
"I didn't start playing guitar until I was 18," Smith says. "I was a late bloomer and really didn't know any theory." Smith fidgets with the pinstriped black hat that sits atop his dark-brown hair and flashes a smile.
"Still doesn't," Zeigenbein says with a laugh.
"She's the theory monster," he says, referring to Zeigenbein. "I just sort of fake it."
After high school, Smith lit out from his Blue Springs, Missouri, home to Hollywood. "I got a one-way ticket. I said: I'm going to go down there and take this opportunity. And whenever I decide to come back, I'll make the money and get a ticket." Smith spent the next three years busking and meeting people.
On December 12, 2009, Smith returned to Missouri to visit family for the holidays. "By December 27, I was supposed to go back to Hollywood, but I didn't," Smith says.
One evening during Smith's visit home, he drove to Crosstown Station to perform at an open-mic night. There, he met another figure who would alter the course of his life: the man running the Wonderful Travels of Mr. 9, a traveling roadshow based in Kansas City.
Zeigenbein was at Crosstown that night, too, dancing. (She had dropped out of college and was, she says, homeless.) Smith and Zeigenbein left the venue with the man from Mr. 9, arriving at an office space in the middle of Westport.
"We both basically joined that night," Smith says. Dettmer also joined within the week.
Later, Smith and Zeigenbein found out that members of the roadshow were squatters in the Westport building. "There were probably, like, 20 kids [living there]," Zeigenbein says. "We pimped this office space out. There was a recording studio, offices and a stage. It was fantastic."
Zeigenbein and Smith note that they had to make a lot of sacrifices — namely money and a normal life. "Meeting Ziggy [Zeigenbein] and Surka [Dettmer], and the whole roadshow, was so different, and the people were so good compared to the people I was meeting in Hollywood," Smith says. "The intentions of the people in L.A. with my music versus the intentions of the people from the roadshow — I don't know. It was a smaller opportunity, but it was so much better for my heart."
When police eventually found the space, Smith and Zeigenbein were booted out. They decided to move to Lawrence. That's where they met Hartman.
All of Dumptruck Butterlips' members now live in Lawrence, and they credit the city's boisterous music scene for helping the band quickly earn a reputation among bluegrass lovers. When the group started performing, in May 2010, it played open-mic nights at The Granada's Mudstomp Monday and open-jam sessions at the Jazzhaus.
"Fans started hitting us up on Facebook and liking us, so we got more serious," Smith says. "People wanted it."
The musicians call what they do "bedroom soul-grass," a term borrowed from the Skirts at last year's Acoustic Vacation in Noel, Missouri. The band's tightknit harmonies, jaunty melodies and humor-filled lyrics are in keeping with its motto: "Live love." Smith extends his hands to reveal the two words tattooed on his fingers.
"Most people constantly talk about the negative things in their life," Smith says. "Everyone likes to complain."
"We just like to stop it," Zeigenbein says, joyfully clapping her hands to emphasize her statement. "We just want to make people happy and spread love. That's why we do this."