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
Early Watts originals were airy plaints and sentimental reveries, but her increasing loyalty to Hank Jr. and David Allan Coe, the big-boy practitioners of what author Barbara Ching calls hard country’s "deliberate display of burlesque abjection," is leading her down a far gnarlier and more appealing honky-tonk trail. But the "It Came from" crew is show-business hungry. Regular Waylon Payne, the son of outlaw big wheels Sammi Smith and guitarist Jody Payne (godson and namesake of Waylon Jennings), had a 2003 Universal Records debut ("intensely compelling songs," gushed Dwight Yoakam on the accompanying press release, but "intensely murky self-indulgence" would be a more apt description, and the album was DOA). Meanwhile, Howard and Hanks each briefly participated in USA Networks’ bonehead "reality" talent contest Nashville Star and have, like Kreis, recently signed their own record deals.
Watts herself went through a period of constantly shuttling between Hollywood and Nashville — certainly she and her actor husband have significant entr√©e to industry power pigs — and by dint of her Dixie nativity, considerable babe-ocity and the "Redneck Woman"–heralded return to populist outlaw stance, she seemed on the verge of striking her own insidious pact with the Music City beast. "Every time I go down there," she said on the day of the Mad Dog sessions a few months back, "they keep telling me, ‘Tonya, you’ve really got to be here in Nashville to make this happen,’ so I’m considering making the move, because this is what I want to do, and it just looks like that’s the only way it’s going to."
She nearly did. After nearly three months hustling her songs in Nashville, a dismayed Watts gladly returned to Hollywood. "They all say the same thing," she said recently, "and they all talk shit about each other. They don’t even like the music being put out, but no one changes. Truth is, they don’t want artists there — they just want good singers who will do exactly what they tell them. You just end up stuck, playing the game."
For Cody Bryant, a Whittier-born, 20-year-veteran multi-instrumentalist of impressive virtuosity on guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin, the matter of Music City is settled. "Nashville?" says the leader of Cody Bryant and the Ruff Riders with a laugh, "why bother? I’m really sick of people whining about Nashville ‘not understanding’ or ‘not taking an interest in real music.’ Nashville doesn’t owe us the time of day, so quit whining or suck it up and write the kind of stuff they want. Anyway, we’re in California — God’s country. My pilgrimages have all been to Bakersfield."
A passionate tradition bearer who embraces the history of Los Angeles country that filtered through his childhood, Bryant writes songs much in the classic Harlan Howard style. He also enjoys a close association with Red Simpson. "When I did my album a few years ago, someone said, ‘What do you want to get out of this?’ I said, ‘A chance to meet Red Simpson — but he’s probably dead.’ Then I found out from [singer] Kathy Robertson that he wasn’t, went up there the next Monday.
"I made him dig his Tele out of a suitcase, and he took me to Trout’s, started throwing modified three-chord jazz progressions over country songs. These old guys can put 12 chords in a three-chord progression if they want to — it’s a trick they play to stay awake, and it’s what separates the men from the boys."
After Bryant demonstrated the ability to follow Simpson’s musical acrobatics, the pair grew close and have recorded a yet-to-be-released trove of recent Simpson compositions. Bryant’s headquarter stage, Burbank’s Viva Cantina, features Simpson several times a year. There Simpson always embodies the crackling guitaristic ideal of the Bakersfield Sound — the alliance is one of the best things to happen in California country since Dwight Yoakam coaxed Buck Owens out of a lengthy retirement. At Viva, other eminent players, like axman Al Bruno, have also found a haven. Another close Bryant association with 1930s-era Riders of the Purple Sage founder Buck Page ("His knowledge of that era filled in all the blanks in my mind as to how they got the sound") also demonstrates the breadth of his ongoing search for the authentic.
Bryant was born to it: "I couldn’t fight it if I wanted to. We were the last ones who grew up with Buck’s TV show and Cal’s Corral[the country-music TV showcase put together by local car dealer Cal Worthington]. My dad was a square-dance caller, and I’d go with him every night to carry his gear — I was going to dances when I was 2, and a lot of those guys on the records were also doing the square dances — it was another paid gig. Joe Maphis, Jimmy Bryant (no relation), all those sidemen. I started playing piano when I was 11, then guitar and then banjo took over my life for a long time. I did bluegrass everywhere you could, the festivals, the parks. Entered and won a lot of bluegrass festivals — winning Telluride was when I made my exit. I was in my 20s and drifted back to the L.A. sound. It’s a way of performing, that loose style, energetic, dance-oriented. Take no prisoners, just get it out there and worry about the arrangement when we get to the chorus."