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 Café, 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.



The Groovy Rednecks
 

 

“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 marked contrast 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.

[



Dirt-under-the-fingernails artistry
from Molly Howson, center, and
bandmates John Goux, left, Scott Ward
on bass and drummer Michael Kinkade
 

 

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
entrée 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.”

Born to the California country
sound: Cody Bryant
 

 

The most unlikely 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 protégé 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.