No Lies, Just Bullshit: Homegrown in Harrisonburg with Virginia’s Underground Podcast

by | Nov 8, 2019 | ART

From announcing the Avail reunion shows in Richmond to interviewing tattoo artists, musicians, and hometown folks, No Lies Just BS Podcast host Nick Swartz opens a personal window into Virginian life from his Harrisonburg shop, Alley Cat Tattoo. 

“I don’t really do things in the conventional way.”

When he first started the No Lies Just BS podcast, host and owner of Harrisonburg’s Alley Cat Tattoo Nick Swartz had a lifetime of stories waiting to be told.

From humble beginnings in Clifton Forge to being kidnapped with his brother at eight years old, Swartz could have easily captured an audience with the tales of his own upbringing — but his stories weren’t the only ones Swartz wanted to tell.

“Not everyone is a great storyteller, but everyone has a story to tell,” Swartz said. “I’ve talked to people from all over the place… I’ve got a ton of stories that I haven’t told yet on the show, but I like to sprinkle them in when my memory is sparked by someone else.”

The podcast, which started three years ago this October, is a storytelling podcast with a focus on the tattoo community. From interviewing world-renowned tattoo artists to hometown folks from rural regions of Virginia, to hosting the original Avail reunion show announcement in its Tim Barry episode — which quickly ignited fans from Richmond and across the nation — Swartz made a point to highlight voices from all walks of life.

“The podcast has kind of grown on its own. And it’s weird, because I get recognized in Richmond a lot more than anywhere else — but I also have people look at the podcast and go, ‘What’s that?’ more than anywhere else.”

Swartz has come to know many of his friends and podcast guests through owning Alley Cat Tattoo. Since No Lies Just BS started, he’s sat down with tattoo artists like Richmond’s Brian Bruno at Absolute Art, Mike Rubendall of Kings Avenue Tattoo in New York City (according to Swartz, one of the most high-profile shops in the world), Jill Bonny of San Francisco’s Studio Kazoku, Virginia’s Scott Sterling, Timothy Hoyer, and more. He’s also hosted musicians like Scott H. Biram, Old Heavy Hands, and Ryan Braces of Bracewar.

“I was trying to tell these stories out about growing up in the mountains and having this crazy life,” Swartz said. “My brother and I got kidnapped when I was eight and he was eleven. We were left in an empty condominium in Florida for a month. We were around rednecks, bikers, and scumbags, drugs and crazy shit. I was telling these stories [as I started the podcast], but I was sort of directing them toward a tattoo audience, because that’s where I was known.”

An especially-beloved voice for Swartz is that of Mary Jane, a local artist in her 70’s who made her way into his shop seeking her first tattoo. Mary Jane had just seen the latest season of Stranger Things, and noticed the character with a fishbone tattoo on her ear. Sick of wearing earrings, Mary Jane decided to get her first tattoo on her earlobes.

“I hear her setting an appointment, and she has an incredible Southern accent from the far South. And I love accents — it’s something I’ve always been drawn to,” Swartz said. “I said to her, ‘Do you know what a podcast is?’ And she said, ‘Yes, of course. What am I, an idiot?’ I asked if she’d like to be on my podcast, and Mary Jane said, ‘Well, my friends will probably think I’m crazy for spending the day with some weirdo like you, but I’ll do it [laughs].’”

Mary Jane (Episode 98) went on to tell a remarkable tale of growing up in Alabama and living through segregation. Born in Tuscaloosa — at the time, the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan — she lived in the Deep South until 1969 before moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Her family included a black woman, Johnnie Mae Jones, who was her daddy’s best friend and worked as their live-in nanny for 50 years. In high school, Mary Jane and her friends used to get drunk and sneak into Klan rallies.

“She said, ‘I remember going to these meetings as a little girl,’ and I thought ‘Oh my god, she’s gonna be racist, I’m gonna have to throw her out of here.’ Then she went, ‘The only thing I knew about these guys was they wore white… things… over their heads, and that they were white trash. You knew they were the lowest of the low,’ and I said, ‘Oh, thank God.’ I’ve had the gnarliest tattooers from all over the world reach out to me and say she’s their favorite episode — now, she has two full sleeves of tattoos and two half sleeves on her legs. And she’s part of our family, she comes to cookouts at my house.”

Stories like Mary Jane’s aren’t uncommon to No Lies Just BS. Swartz has hosted guests from tattooers to musicians and hometown locals — all telling their own little pieces of life with a laid-back, and usually comedic, flare.

“Anytime you have the opportunity to be friends with someone, it improves upon your life,” Swartz said of Mary Jane. “We’ve become the best of friends. She’s a special lady.”

As the owner of a tattoo shop nestled in the Shenandoah Valley between the Appalachian Mountains, Swartz has come to hear the wild and entertaining stories of his many customers, musicians, and tattoo artists in the industry.

“[Jill Bonny] came on, and told a story about visiting two Japanese tattoo masters in Japan, both of them in their 80’s. One of those gentlemen is Hori Yoshi III,” Swartz said. “He prepared a statement to be read on my show, which is mind-blowing. He’s been my favorite tattooer for years, and I never thought I would be in contact with him.”

Of the few people Swartz has pursued more than once to be on the show, Tim Barry was one of them. When he initially didn’t hear back, Swartz assumed it was because of his enthusiasm for Avail, a part of Barry’s life that was behind him. But out of the blue, he got a text from Barry that said, “I want to do the show, and I want to do it on this day.” 

“Avail is a big deal for me, they made a huge impact on me,” Swartz said. “I said I couldn’t do that day because I had someone flying in from LA to do the show and hang at the shop for a couple days, and he goes, ‘Well, it’s got to be this day. And if it can’t be this day, it can’t be at all.’ I was like, ‘fuck!’ [laughs], so I went to Richmond… And he said the real reason why you’re here is because Avail is playing in Richmond for the first time in 12 years.”

The episode quickly reached the music community in Richmond, sparking a wave of excitement for the reunion in Virginia and around the country. When he first announced the show dates on the podcast, Barry noted an episode of No Lies Just BS that hosted his bandmate, Beau Beau.

“Tim told me, ‘Listening to you talk to Beau on the podcast, and the way you described our shows, was inspiring, it made me feel good. Then I was opening for Hot Water Music in London, and they described the Avail shows the same way. I listened to Over The James again, and it sounded really good… so I decided to talk to the guys [about a reunion].’” Swartz said. “It was a face-melter for me. I didn’t know he was going to do that when I got to his house.”

At the beginning, No Lies Just BS got its name from the first Blues Brothers movie — Swartz’s favorite to date. His son’s name is Jake Elwood Blues Swartz, and the podcast’s name was no less intentional.

“It’s been a part of my life my whole life. After Jake gets out of prison, he asks, ‘When are we gonna practice?’ And Elwood tells him the band’s not together. Jake says, ‘You told me the band was still together, you lied to me!’ and Elwood says, ‘Ah, it’s not a lie, it’s just bullshit.’ My wife suggested the name for the podcast, and I agreed because I didn’t want to be the guy to discuss serious topics — there’s a place for those things, and I’m just not the guy to host that show.”

Swartz still tries to make a difference in the world, especially close to home. He just doesn’t like to make a big deal out of it.

“I’m the type of person that I believe as long as we take care of our own, and our own neighborhoods and communities, everything will be okay,” he said. “I do it here. Whenever it’s time to pack the bus for school, I go around and get everyone in the shop to pitch in for school supplies for kids in our area. It’s not a huge thing. But I feel it makes a difference here.”

As he became more involved in the culture over his 16 years owning Alley Cat Tattoo, Swartz came to meet many people with interesting backgrounds and stories he thought the world should hear. As No Lies Just BS grew its audience, he found that the most valuable piece of the podcast was its ability to share the jokes, tales, and personalities — the small, often overlooked facets of everyday life — that give a community its soul. Its underground and personal vibe makes listeners feel like they’re sitting in the room with their favorite artists and musicians.

“There’s this incredible tattooer out of Norway named Marius Meyer, and he was one of my early listeners,” Swartz said. “He said to me, ‘Nick, the draw for me is not the tattoo stuff, but it’s the window into Appalachian life from a country boy’s point of view. There’s no way I can get an authentic version of that where I live, unless I read a book that was written 50 years ago. It just doesn’t exist.”

The podcast offers its listeners a look into the region’s culture. With little other outlets aside from local news, No Lies Just BS creates a way to tell Virginia’s stories from a personal view that many news stories don’t convey.

“The thing that I enjoy is bringing stories to the table that people would not hear otherwise,” Swartz said. “My brother and I lived in a place where, if you needed to, you couldn’t holler for anybody. It was just our house in the woods. We cut wood to stay warm, we killed deer and caught trout to feed ourselves, and we had a giant garden. It’s a point of view that I can provide and share that’s just not often touched on.”

Swartz feels that there’s a difference between his own perspective on life in the back country of Virginia that isn’t captured by most who choose to write about it.

“Often those little articles and news stories [about life in the area] are written from an outside perspective that is spoken to someone that they pity,” he said. “I’m proud of where I’m from, I’m proud of who I am. And the things that I’ve experienced, good and bad, equipped me for life.”

Swartz is interested in everyday people, and with them, he’s heard everything from the complicated to the humorous and bizarre. A passionate chef, Swartz takes a personal investment in cooking — and after cooking with Old Heavy Hands, Brother Hawk, and the artists of Absolute Art among others, his cooking and connections through tattoo communities helped him become close friends with many people from the tattoo industry, including Bracewar’s Ryan Braces.

“Ryan’s been my buddy for many years, and he was booking a show at Strange Matter for Brother Hawk and Old Heavy Hands,” Swartz said. “He asked if I’d come down there and cook, so I went with a buddy of mine. It was a blast. I hit it off with those dudes, we drank whiskey and smoked, and I gave them a ton of food for them to take on the road. So at that point, we decided to link up, and Bracewar booked a show in Harrisonburg. He’s a solid guy all-around — those dudes are my close friends, and they mean the world to me. That’s my family.” 

Another favorite musician of his guests on No Lies Just BS, Scott H. Biram, originally made an impact on Swartz the first time he saw Biram play. That happened back in the 90s, when Biram opened for Hank Williams III in Washington, D.C. When Biram played a show in his town years later, Swartz reached out to a friend at the venue about getting him into the show.

“He told Scott, ‘I think you guys are very similar, and you’d get along just fine.’ So Scott avoided me at all costs,” Swartz laughed. “A year later he comes back, and his manager tells me the reason he avoided me is because he plays a persona on stage — from my friend, he thought I was just like his persona. And he didn’t want to associate with anybody like that. But I’ve been to his shows and bought him drinks so many times, I said that if he sees me, he’ll know me. I texted Scott a picture of me, and immediately got a text saying, ‘Aw hell, man, I didn’t know it was you!’”

When Biram came on the show, he played a version of “Mule Skinner Blues” in the office. The old-time bluegrass song has been a favorite of Swartz’s since he was about 10 years old.

“For a moment, I was like, ‘This is unreal. I can’t believe it, he’s sitting five feet from me playing a song that I’ve listened to my whole life.’ That really made a big impact on me. He’s a solid guy, it definitely kind of blew my mind — he was also one of the first people that had no reason to give me a chance. In tattooing, you might know who I am, but in the rest of the world, I’m just a dude.”

After more than 160 episodes, there are still plenty of guests Swartz hopes to host on No Lies Just BS in its future. From tattooers like Baltimore’s Uncle Pauly and New York’s Rose Hardy, originally from New Zealand, to honky-tonk musician Wayne Hancock from Texas, the list keeps growing as Swartz meets artists from different walks of life. Most importantly, he wants to hear their stories; especially more from ordinary folks like Mary Jane and his Uncle Benny.

For many of us, the words of a passing stranger in our day-to-day encounters are nothing more than white noise in the background of life’s routines. But for Swartz, something as simple as an accent overheard from another room can open the door to a lifetime of stories shared, new friendships, and the sense of community that connects us all as individuals. The simple things are, to him, things to be valued — and whether it’s small talk or a big moment with our artistic heroes, he’s able to use No Lies Just BS as a means to bring people together.

Catch up with Swartz at Alley Cat Tattoo in Harrisonburg, with his shop’s artists including Chris Porter, Andrew Conner, Trevor Smith, Richie Stutler, and Jake Hockman, as well as piercers Katie Davis and Sarah Pennington (who also performs in Richmond as a popular burlesque artist by the name of Sindi Ray Boustier).

Listen to No Lies Just BS on Spotify or their website, and check out Alley Cat Tattoo on their Instagram

Caley Sturgill

Caley Sturgill

Caley Sturgill is the Director of Media at RVA Magazine. Email her at for inquiries and RVA On Tap releases.

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