Wednesday, March 20, 2013

. . . but also a citizen of the Hillbilly World

Kentucky's StarDevils, an outstanding hillbilly/rockabilly combo

In my previous post I sang the praises of being a musical locavore, i.e., someone who buys music by and sees lives shows by bands from the local community.  I’m fortunate that here in Colorado there’s a plethora of outstanding country and rockabilly bands that suite my tastes nicely.

But of course it’s the 21st century, and thanks to the internet the world is our community and in this global village it’s possible to discover great bands based literally thousands of miles from where you live, and even though you obviously can’t see them live you can at least download their music and enjoy it.  And so while I’m still committed to supporting (financially and otherwise) my local scene as much as possible, lately I’ve also been searching for similar bands far and wide using the spectacular site Reverbnation.  Just a quick plug here but if you haven’t checked out Reverbnation, you should (especially if you’re reading this post).  It’s an incredible compendium of information on bands of every genre and from every corner of the globe. What I like about it is it’s kind of a cross between All Music Guide (which I’ve used and enjoyed for years) and band MySpace or Facebook pages—it provides background info on the band, history, membership, genres and descriptions of their sounds, and song files to listen to as well as concert and tour into, reviews, and other pertinent information. 

But what’s best about it is that it’s one of the most  searchable sites out there, and in particular it is searchable by genre.  So a couple weeks ago I typed in “hillbilly” to see what I could find since I figured typing in “rockabilly” or “country” would produce far too many hits.  Even with “hillbilly” I got over 260 hits, everything from “hillbilly country” (expected) to “hillbilly rock” (yeah, I can see that) to “hillbilly grunge”, “hillbilly metal”, and “hillbilly gangsta rap” (huh?).  But combing through these I managed to find about a dozen acts that seem to fit my interests, which I discuss below.  What’s incredible is where these acts hail from—not only do they come from slightly less traditionally country locales in America like Albuquerque  New Mexico and San Francisco California, but American honky tonky country and hillbilly boogie has become a truly global phenomenon, with acts from Europe and Australia. As skeptical as I was that artists from these non-traditional locales could play real hillbilly/honky tonk country, I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found.

Hailing from Kentucky, StarDevils play a first-run countrified rockabilly that pulls from, according to their Reverbnation page, “ELVIS PRESLEY, Carl Perkins, Wayne Hancock, Hank Williams, Charlie Feathers”.  Okay, they’ve got the right inspirations—add Johnny Horton to that list and that would just about cover around 90% of what I currently listen to.    Formed in 2000, they have received favorable reviews from a variety of rockabilly web sites such as Black Cat Rockabilly for their authentic mid-50’s sound; aside from the drums on their recorded work I would definitely agree (and even The King added drums to his records pretty quickly after his first few singles on Sun).  They actually have two CDs on iTunes, 2003’s Diagnosis Delicious and 2005’s The Devil’s Music. I like both albums a lot, not surprisingly.  Off Delicious I have downloaded “$6 Trim” for its jaunty rhythm and twangy vocals and the humorous story it tells about a bopper who goes to get a haircut and gets his pompadour shorn off.  “I Guess You Figured It Out” is a romance-gone-bad tale with a solid boogie backbeat; “On the Corner” is slower and twangier, almost ominous, more of a finger-snapper than a jitter-bugger but is also good.  “Mr. Lonesome” is really more pure honky tonk country and reminds me a lot of my current local fave, Ethyl and the Regulars.  This is one of my favorite songs of theirs.  “She’s My Chick” is up-tempo boogie with a slight rockabilly edge; I really like how these guys walk that fine, thin line between country and rockabilly so well.  “You Can’t Do That” has that railroad clickity-clack rhythm of classic 50’s countrybilly like Johnny Horton. Off their Devil’s Music album, I like “Buckboard Boogie”, another song that veers between hillbilly boogie and early rockabilly; the more straightforward Gene Vincent inflected rockabilly of “Off My Rocker”; and the country blues of “Leaving Chicago”.  This band is VERY high on my own personal favorite list right now.

Another band I’m really excited about are the Hayride Trio out of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. There’s nothing available as yet on iTunes but they’ve got several videos of performances uploaded to YouTube that I’ve found particularly enjoyable.  Their cover of Woody Guthrie’s “California Blues” is a jaunty honky tonk blues workout with some swing and a boatload of guitar talent.  “Hayride Boogie” is a peppy hillbilly boogie; it’s jangly catchiness reminds me of another current local favorite of mine, “Fast Track” by Denver’s Mad Dog and the Smokin’ J’s.   “Jitterbug” also has a rockabilly feel to it and conveys the energy and enthusiasm these guys have for letting out the stops in concert.  “Rock It” has that Hank Williams shuffle but more electricity/amplification and is another standout track.  I want to hear more by these guys and especially if they can translate their passionate live performances into similarly effective studio work.

They’re geographically about as far from Memphis as its possible to get, but Melbourne, Australia’s Rechords are another phenomenal old-school country-rockabilly outfit bringing the sounds of down-home Americana to the shores of Oz.  They have one album on iTunes, 2010’s On the Wagon.   “Easily Loved” has the smooth sweet hillbilly jazz guitar sound that pulls from the western swing work of guys like Jimmy Wyble and Bob Dunn, set into a crisp rockabilly format with smoothly crooned Elvis-like vocals.  “Don’t Be Mad” reminds me of some of Brian Setzer’s solo work (particularly the vocals) but with that cruder Eddie Cochran feel to the guitar than “Easily Loved”.  “It Won’t Be Long” has a Merle Travis feel to the guitar and even a little fiddle to add more country flavor, along with some soaring harmonies.  “Boogie Blues” again has more of a western swing vibe and a yodeling vocal that evokes the best of Wayne the Train Hancock—good stuff.  “Fireball Mail” chugs along like “Mystery Train” and the jangly guitar work here is superb.  “Long As I’m Around” is gutbucket rockabilly, low and twangy with yipping vocals and a snappy beat.  Another highly recommended outfit, nothing really seems bad on this whole album.

They hail from Ferndale, Michigan, but the Hi-Q’s are a standard mid 50’s rockabilly unit.  While it has less of the country/hillbilly feel of the above bands, this is top-notch rockabilly.  I like “Hi-Q Boogie” and its gutbucket rhythm and fleet guitar picking on the solos and “Bop Crazy Bop” off their 2005 album Hop & Bop.  Good stuff and I think I’ll come back after I’ve had to explore this album some more.

San Francisco’s B-Stars have a sound that veers away from rockabilly and back toward traditional 50’s country, stuff like Ernest Tubb but with a western swing to it a la Bob Wills.  2010’s Behind the Barn with the B-Stars has a number of excellent tracks, including the swinging, jazzy “Ink Free Baby of Mine”.  “Back Up Buddy” is a straightforward Hank Williams honky tonk outing that captures that funky swing of Hank’s music.  “Walk Home Alone” reminds me of Ernest Tubb but with more twangy Hank style vocals.  These guys also walk the walk, dressing in flamboyant matching western outfits.  I like their style, both visual and musical; I’d probably have liked it more 6 months ago when all I was listening to was Wayne Hancock, Hank III, and Joey Allcorn.

Similarly, Davy Jay Sparrow from Portland, Oregon has that nasally Hank vocal down pat.  As mentioned above, I’ve kind of migrated away from this kind of hardcore Hank Williams sound, but I did download “I Need to Make Some Money” off 2010’s The Bottom of the Barrel and “Slow Slow Boogie” off 2012’s Olde Fashioned; I like the slow, grooving swing of this song, it’s really close to the excellent stuff Wayne Hancock has been putting out for about 18 years.

The seemed at first glance to be almost a little too “Hee Haw” for my tastes, given their corn-pone country hick visual image, but Root’n Toot’n, from the decidedly UN-rootin’-tootin’ city of Durham in England play an undeniably infectious blend of traditional country, hillbilly, and honky tonk.  “Turn My Picture Upside Down” off 2006’s Raw and Uncut has a swinging shuffle beat (courtesy of upright bassist Mandy Stroud, one of the regrettably few female musicians in this genre).  “Big River” off 2008’s Making Hay is country with a rockabilly twist, amped up (slightly) and with smoother vocals.  “Dawg Gone It” off the 2009 album of the same name is more rockabilly still, similar in feel to some of Carl Perkins’ early Sun singles; “Teenage Boogie” on this same album is more electrified hillbilly boogie.  “Onie’s Bop” off their most recent album, 2011’s Another Nail in My Liver, is similar and name checks country pioneer Ferlin Husky. 

There must be something in the water over in England, because there’s several bands putting out an authentic country/rockabilly sound plying their trade in our mother country.  Based in London, Charlie Thompson is another real-deal hillbilly/rockabilly artist who you would swear hailed from Shreveport instead.  He doesn’t have an album on iTunes but “It’s Drivin’ Me Crazy” is available on YouTube and has a sweet swing and Charlie’s voice is pure sweet country butter it’s so smooth.  Also on YouTube is “Sittin’ and Waitin’”; Charlie’s voice here really reminds me of Eddie Cochran’s, which is a real compliment.  It also puts me in mind of Moot Davis, a New Jersey country crooner whose music I also enjoy.  I hope Charlie gets some commercial product out there soon, I’d like to line his pockets with some of my money in exchange for some of his terrific tunes.

Another English band producing classic 50’s country is the Dead Bone Ramblers, who formed early in 2012 and also don’t have any commercial product out but who have several videos uploaded to YouTube of them playing live in pubs or community fairs.  “Bonfire” has that classic folk/traditional country feel but with just enough electric guitar to make it feel more modern.  Their cover of Charlie Feathers’ “Can’t Hardly Stand It” does great justice to this Sun Records pioneer; Feathers became a sensation in the 70’s and 80’s in English rockabilly circles for his frequent and well-received tours at that time.  “Heartbreakin’ Love” has a jaunty feel reminiscent of “Ring of Fire” by The Man in Black, and “True Affection” is a quick fun rockabilly gallop with clean sound on the guitar tone.

I don’t have much from them yet, but London’s Muleskinners produce a straight-up rockabilly sound. “Tomcat Boogie” is on YouTube and is a good swinging cut.   Their sound occasionally pulls a little more from swing music than country, as is evidenced by their cover of Wayne Hancock’s “That’s What Daddy Wants”, but is entertaining nevertheless.

Amazingly, another country troubadour who doesn’t have any product out but some impressive YouTube videos is American Lucky Tubb, grandson of country titan Ernest Tubb.  “Damn the Luck” (an obvious play on his name) showcases his honky tonk/outlaw approach to country; like Hank III Lucky appears to have turned his back (and rightly so) on the Nashville establishment and is making his own way.  His sound actually reminds me, aside from Hank II of course, of another famous country scion, Shooter Jennings.  “Rhythm Bomb” is more rocking, a turbo-charged honky tonk number that swings and bops. 

Hailing from the Netherlands, the Hi Faluters play gutbucket honky tonk and rockabilly in the Johnny Horton mold; their cover of Horton’s “Honky Tonk Mind” is very capable.  They have literally dozens of videos uploaded to YouTube and I’m slowly working through them but so far I like what I’ve heard, these guys are a very tight outfit and their sound is (surprisingly) authentic.

I’m sure I’ll find

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