By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Howson is a powerful anomaly, a Hollywood-born high school dropout whose formative experiences came as a habitual truant roaming the streets. She’s "never read a book for pleasure," can’t abide a 9-to-5 — she works as a house painter — and picked up a guitar for the first time in the summer of 2003. Since then she has exhibited a formidable writing and vocal style, developed over a course of open-mike spots and the few bookings she’s been able to get. Howson manages to largely bypass the maudlin shtick that so many inward-looking confessional voices succumb to, creating instead a strikingly effective, original country sound.
"I started writing songs," Howson says, "because I was looking for something in my life that I could rely on to carry me through." Classic country themes — loss and drunkenness — prevail, and her songs further that pathology with a biting, occasionally profane intensity, masked by a sweet and wholesome demeanor. Her building contractor father, a man of dovetail-precise character, filled the house with country music, and her Fillmore Auditorium–enlightened mother, a congenial free spirit, "always tried to expose Molly to good singers or, I should say, singers with great voices — Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin." So, musically, Howson was in good hands. She names Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline as favorites, and underwent an intense Tanya Tucker period, but none of these are apparent influences in Howson’s performances. With her shadowy from-the-chest intonation and an angular manner of phrasing that lends unusual shapes to deliberately toyed-with syllables, she achieves a highly individual presentation.
But even with an impressive self-produced 11-song CD, Howson had been eating dirt for months, trying to break in on hothouses like the once-a-month "Sweethearts of the Rodeo All Stars" at Molly Malone’s and "It Came from Nashville" nights, but was invariably rebuffed.
"It’s all a big clique," she says, "and if you’re not already in on it, you can pretty much forget about it."
So Howson kept going to the pure country sources, and, after a few tries in Chatsworth’s Cowboy Palace Wednesday talent contest, was impressive enough to score her own night there. "I was so nervous, I almost puke every time I think about it," she says of her first Palace booking, a demanding all-Molly, 8 p.m.-’til-closing- multiple-cover-song-sets gig. She had no compunction whatsoever about having to learn Shania Twain songs, yet dishearteningly remarks that she wanted to make her second CD "a little more rocking, less twangy." As work on that CD has progressed, though, she says the playbacks are country. "It’s all country. I guess that’s just what I do."
Back on the sidewalk outside Hallenbeck’s, she chats with friends, signs a CD for an Australian fan, tosses away a cigarette butt and finds herself approached by a coffeehouse employee with some money in hand.
"Here. You made nine dollars."
A markedcontrast to Howson’s self-propelled, dirt-under-the-fingernails artistry is the only slightly less intriguing singer-songwriter Tonya Watts, who as the only child of the South in this story — and the sole commercially viable performer — represents the latest in a long line of expatriate girl singers seeking approval in the entertainment capital of the world. For the past couple of years, she’s organized the "It Came from Nashville" night at West Hollywood’s Genghis Cohen on the second Tuesday of every month. The shows are built around Watts and like-minded Southerners Levi Kreis, Austin Hanks, Travis Howard and others who came West to avoid the stifling factory conditions of Music City.
Meeting Watts, a former model, occasional actress and past Pamela Anderson body double, in a room at Dusty Wakeman’s Mad Dog Studios, with her husband, The Bold and the Beautiful soap hunk Brian Gaskill, a quip of Howson’s came to mind: "I met them and thought, ‘Oh, it’s Ken and Barbie.’ " Alabama-born, no bigger than a nickel and with an accent of extravagant twang, Watts sports a Stars and Bars–emblazoned T-shirt, sliced down the sides and secured with about 200 safety pins, that trumpets "Redneck & Proud of It."
At Mad Dog, she was cutting a newly composed number, "When Hank Jr. Came to Town," co-written in Tennessee with Nashville hotshot James Dean Hicks. The song is a good, solid Deep Dixie outlaw update (when queried, she seemed completely unaware of Johnny Cash’s 1987 "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town"), and Dusty Wakeman’s production puts it across in high gothic ’70s hillbilly style. The song tells an old-timey tale of a peckerwood papa and his rock & roll bad little girl discovering common familial ground when they run into each other at one of Junior’s concerts — and Watts has pull enough that Indie 103’s Watusi Rodeo has been airing several of her label-less cuts.
Yet apart from the regular "It Came from Nashville" showcases, Watts doesn’t play too many other clubs. "I want to use my own band, and I like to pay them $100 or at least $50 each, and I just can’t afford to do that," she says. "So I concentrate on what we do [on the showcase nights], which is all about the songs. Often we’ll come in with something written maybe an hour before, just get up and do it that night."