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
Photos by Wild Don Lewis
Long fabled for its vaunted country music tradition, Bakersfield is more and more like a ghost town with an ever-dwindling handful of regular stages for country acts. Two of these stages feature Buck Owens and Red Simpson, among the very best this hallowed hicksville has produced, but Owens has been missing a lot of Crystal Palace dates recently due to poor health, and Simpson doesn’t even bother to fire up his Telecaster anymore, doing a single set with an electronic keyboard every lonesome Monday night at the classic corrugated-tin tonk Trout’s in nearby Oildale. At Simpson’s once-a-month Grange Hall seniors dance, the crowd fuels up not on bourbon and bennies but coffee and cookies. You can’t even get a damn beer.
Miles later down the Alfred Harrell Highway, I arrive at Ethel’s Old Corral Caf√©, a decayed shack with a pair of decrepit buckboards bookending the front-porch roof and an eye-popping 25-foot-high shirtless fiberglass Indian brave standing sentinel in a parking lot full of Harley hogs and pickup trucks. Inside, it’s midnight dark. There are rough-hewn picnic tables and benches, drinkers two deep at the bar and, in the corner, a glittering red drum kit surrounded by a handful of scruffy jammers. As likely to do an Alan Jackson song as they are a Haggard tune, the revolving troupe of players, equally primitive and accomplished by turns, demonstrate the fetishistic tribal rite with boozy confidence.
After a few hours and a few trips out of the frosty-beer-and-AC womb of the Corral for a smoke in the desert furnace, a lulling hot-and-cold sauna effect takes over. Count your stinking blessings, son, because it turns out that there indeed ain’t no place like home: California’s best country music is still an almost exclusively Los Angeles–centered proposition.
The history of Los Angeles country is phenomenal, going back to 1929’s barefoot Beverly Hillbillies, the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy and Gene and the radical late-’40s guitar stylings of Jimmy Bryant and Roy Nichols. These were players whose deconstructions of hillbilly take-off guitar solos tended toward an almost hard-bop expressionism, which led to the austere modern approach of Missouri-born, Los Angeles–based Wynn Stewart. Stewart, a protean auteur whose prime, from 1957 to 1967, stretches through rockabilly, ballads, honky-tonk and some of the best death songs ever ("Long Black Limousine," "I’m Gonna Kill You"), was an unprecedented stylist whose deep influence directly codified the so-called Bakersfield Sound and significantly reached several future giants. The most notable were Waylon Jennings, a fiercely vocal fan who recorded several of Wynn’s tunes and taught himself to play guitar "so it sounded just like Moon’s steel" (as in Ralph Mooney, the longtime Stewart sideman who subsequently became a defining force in Jennings’ 1970s Waylors), and Merle Haggard, who played bass for Stewart after getting out of San Quentin and later invested the singer’s updated honky-tonk form with an explicit realism. Buck Owens and Johnny Paycheck also learned much from the Stewart model.
But the pursuit of a California country kick never ends, and today there’s plenty to be proud of. Solid hardcore talents like Rick Shea, Patty Booker, Kathy Robertson, the expanded-consciousness artistry of I See Hawks in L.A., the incomparable guitarist Pete Anderson, and an ever-swelling army of bluegrass pickers, country rockers, offbeat cowpunk shouters and retro-fixated revivalists all make for a bed of potentialities that’s far more heartening than it is funereal. But instead of celebrating the established voices, this story is a tour through Los Angeles’ country music underworld, stalking the worthy chosen few that deserve attention beyond their loyal fan base.
In California, it’s always been about the extreme to which one can take the music while remaining clearly linked to tradition, and what has always differentiated California country from the Southeastern model is its embrace of the aggressive, the offbeat — a Westerner’s attitude that drove decades of vibrant, progressive activity. It’s a connected manner of legitimate communicative expression rooted in the form, rather than an attempt to simulate that form. That’s a subtle distinction, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with having smelt a lot of mule shit (as Hank Sr. memorably put it) or "paying dues" or chopping cotton, but has everything to do with the differentiation between covetous aping and natural perceptive sensitivity. What it’s all about is combining the form with psychic gravity — something that cannot be simulated.
"I didn’t think I was any good until people started saying that I was," says 26-year-old singer-songwriter Molly Howson. Standing out front of Hallenbeck’s General Store, the North Hollywood coffeehouse where she’s just delivered a powerful set, Howson drags hungrily on a cigarette. Onstage, she’d torn into the lyrics with almost masculine gusto, and her material was both idiosyncratic and extraordinary. Snarling about unpacking her belongings after a romance went south, only to find she had brought along her ex’s "fuckin’ fishin’ hooks," or careening through "Jack Daniels Did," a hungover, scarcely remorseful tale of completely losing control at last night’s saloon (the title line is preceded, in admirably Loretta-esque fashion, by "My Mama didn’t raise me that way, but last night . . ."), Howson had considerable impact — even the low-rent NoHo intelligentsia, who had been groaning "Oh, no — a country singer?" turned out to be enthusiastic recipients of her slightly cracked, thoroughly genuine songs.
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."
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."
He and his Ruff Riders work in black uniforms and on the bandstand make everything a joke — except the music. He runs through a raft of classics every night ("It’s like Tony Bennett said: ‘Take care of the standards, and they’ll take care of you’), and when a friend calls for one of Bryant’s own numbers, he fires back, "Hey, we’re just a bunch of guys who get paid to do cover songs!" He’s proud of his originals but is so historically obsessive that he is almost unable to not do all the greats.
"I think about them every night while I drive to Viva, because it’s the same street they took to work the Riverside Rancho — Cactus Mac, Cliffie Stone, Roy Rogers and the Pioneers, Foy and the Riders, Tex Williams, Johnny Bond, the Western Caravan, Leo Leblanc, and the hundreds of others, and every night I’m conscious of doing their music justice. Their music had value beyond their lifetimes . . . I know I take it way too seriously — I would’ve stopped long ago if I could."
The mostunlikely and perhaps noblest extension of the Los Angeles form of applying extremes to an old-time musical school are the hard-drinking, hell-raising lowlifes known as the Groovy Rednecks. Ridiculed for years by most of the Town South of Bakersfield and Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance crowd, the Rednecks have endured, persevered and not only outlived but artistically outstripped almost all of each camp’s most celebrated acts. As frequent Barndance band guitarist Harry Orlove recently said, "I used to hate the Rednecks — they always showed up drunk, and you could never understand what Tex was singing. But I got their last album, and now I love them — they’re my favorite band."
That album, the band’s third, titled Ass Grabbin’ Country, is a lurching showcase for the band’s terminally self-deprecating exercises in truth-telling rocky-tonk ("Happy Mother’s Day From Prison," "My Girlfriend’s Got a Boyfriend"), and they manage, as usual, to strike dead center with a Roger Miller pith. Meeting with founders Tex Troester and Bob Ricketts and nine-year Redneck Ron Botelho in the party garden adjacent to Troester’s micro-mini Ivar Avenue studio apartment, the bud both foams and burns as they recount 12 years of lurid recklessness.
The Rednecks are a pure Hollywood enigma, born of the crusty Raji’s club school but, trading in an almost folk-style accounting of that life, they qualify more as classic troubadours than rock & roll rabble.
"It’s strange," Tex says, "but we always go over better at punk clubs than we do at country clubs."
Much of the palaver revolves around the fact that almost no one takes them seriously (then, again, neither do they). They finally got a slot on the "Sweethearts of the Rodeo" jam night after several years of trying, but it only happened because another band canceled — the call came three days before the show.
"We’ve also been trying for years to go down and play South By Southwest," Ricketts says of the Austin-based music festival and conference, "but they always send our CDs back."
Neither the Chicago-born, Delta-blues-fixated Ricketts nor former Blood on the Saddle bassist Botelho are exactly born-again country fans, and with the band’s primary country picker Gary Riley MIA this afternoon (even as they’re preparing to play a matinee set at Hollywood Boulevard boozeteria the Frolic Room), it’s almost mystifying trying to peg their indisputable country credibility.
"It is weird," says Ricketts, "but as more time passes, we just get more and more country."
It’s the songs that nail it — a number like "How Come I Only Love You When I’m Drunk" is nothing if not country; the occasional presence of acclaimed songwriter and drummer Mike Stinson (who sits in when regular trapsman Jim Doyle is unable) speaks further to the magnetic allure of this oddball outfit.
The band demonstrably came into their official hillbilly own last month, opening for apocalyptic proto-outlaw David Allan Coe at the Key Club. They took the stage in a just-drunk-enough condition to appease the upscale-rebel-scum audience and still saddle up their do-not-give-a-fuck pony for a smashingly tight spree through Ass Grabbin’ Country in its entirety.
"I’d never felt better than I did after that Coe show," Troester says. "I was walkin’ around the club like a normal guy, but I couldn’t go two feet without someone shakin’ my hand or pattin’ me on the back — that was the greatest night of life."
An hour or two and a 12-pack later, they start setting up gear at the Frolic Room. Out front, Tex is in his element. A longtime door man at boulevard strip joint Jumbo’s Clown Room, he still occasionally fills in checking IDs and intimidating sloppy drunks at the Frolic’s door, and he seems to know everyone. A Middle Eastern guy from the Hollywood Star Tours office next door comes out, eager to show Tex his new belt buckle — a Confederate flag with a golden eagle superimposed upon it.
"I actually got 86’d from here a couple of weeks ago," Tex rasps. "They caught me smoking a joint out front, but we’re still playing the show, so I guess it wasn’t really an 86 — more like a 69."
Later, Tex says, "[The band] means everything to me. It’s hard to describe, but if I didn’t have the band, I wouldn’t know what the hell to do with myself." Besides, he adds, things are looking good — actor Joey Lauren Adams is pitching "How Come I Only Love You When I’m Drunk" for the soundtrack of an upcoming Billy Bob Thornton/Dwight Yoakam picture she has signed to appear in. The Rednecks already had one song used in a movie, and, Tex says, "I get a check for about a quarter every six months."
Inside the Frolic, the Rednecks are jammed into that slimy niche just left of the entrance; venerable scenester/party beast Donny Popejoy makes a smooth broadcaster-toned intro: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome for the 424th time . . ." and they kick into "Drinkin’ Band," a rabble rouser of the highest order. Tex rips his dingy white cowboy off his head and tosses it discuslike down the length of the bar. The congenial dipsos lining the trough love it, a camcorder-toting tourist sneaks in to get some footage of the debauch, and the faces on the Hershfeld mural that covers one wall seem to register that even after all these decades, they really have not seen it all. The romp is afoot, a characteristic barrage of Billy Joe Shaver–simple lyrical observations cast out upon a riptide of just-irresponsible-enough musical performance — an appealing combination that commands the audience to, as Rose Maddox always used to say, "Live it up tonight so you live it down tomorrow."
Not long ago at Viva Cantina, country singer Moot Davis has just finished his set. Producer-guitarist Pete Anderson had worked Davis there a couple of times a week, tempering his prot√©g√© and breaking in a band in preparation of road work to support Davis’ debut album. The boy can sing, and with the presence of Anderson, an outstanding soloist who manages to flabbergast with every song, it’s a pretty damn good show. But the preponderance of ’50s-era covers and retrofitted originals leaves one asking, "Why, Baby, Why?" Just shy of creepy rockabilly revival, it seems unnatural, a surefire way to hobble one’s own artistry.
Cody Bryant was due up next, and I asked him before he took the stage, "Why can’t these guys just be themselves?"
"Fear," he replied without hesitation. "That’s the scariest thing to do — it’s a pit full of snakes and fire, something to be avoided at all costs."
Few of those who do not suck in contemporary Los Angeles country are able to reach that wild extreme and sound not just convincing but natural — whether it’s Tex bellering, "I’ve got a bar in my jacket and a party in my trunk," or Molly Howson spitting out "fuckin’ fishin hooks." The misfires are maddening, as is the imprimatur of hip that the "alt"-Americana set enjoys. Still, the phonies are easy to recognize and easier to ignore. With country, Cody Bryant said it best: "It chooses you, you don’t choose it."
Where To Go Country
The best thing about local country joints is that most all of them are no-cover (call ahead to confirm). These include Coles, 116 E Sixth St., downtown, (213) 663-4090, an old-time watering hole that hosts Molly Howson and I See Hawks in L.A. most Friday and Wednesday nights; Viva Cantina, 900 Riverside Drive, Burbank, (818) 845-2425, which is Cody Bryant’s official headquarters; and El Cid, 4212 Sunset Blvd., (323) 668-0318, the once-a-month home of Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance showcase, which often features the Groovy Rednecks. Genghis Cohen, 740 N. Fairfax Ave., (323)653-0640, is the every-second-Tuesday monthly site of Tonya Watts’ It Came From Nashville, and with an average admission charge of $7 (and visits from the likes of Deana Carter and Jim Lauderdale) rates as a hell of a good deal.