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Still Smokin'

Crabapple, Georgia, isn't exactly a hotbed of musical inspiration. It's not crawling with cutting-edge, college-age scenesters pushing the boundaries of modern rock. It's not flush with fancy country pickers or earthy blues singers. Hell, it's not even blessed with a decent karaoke bar. But Crabapple does have its merits: It's not too long a drive from the Chattahoochee National Forest, or Lake Sidney Lanier. Or Atlanta.

And that's proven to be a blessing for Ben Friedman, lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and driving force behind rockabilly mavens Cigar Store Indians. Friedman may joke about his little town ("We're real fortunate," he jests. "We have a BP station, and they have Twinkies in there now"), but Crabapple provided him with a middle-of-nowhere upbringing perfect for fostering a roots-based musical sensibility, and with easy access -- via a one-hour drive down State Highway 19 through Roswell -- to Atlanta, one of the South's most vital cities and a suitable springboard for launching a serious musical career.

Friedman and the rest of the Indians -- lead guitarist Jim "Low Note" Lavender, bassist Keith Perissi, and drummer Francis "Fast Pedal" Farran -- jump-start their careers at an Atlanta club called the Star Community Bar. They first recorded on a small independent label in town, Landslide. So far the group's resume includes a rollicking fifteen-track CD, regular jaunts through the South and along the Eastern seaboard, a growing fan base, and a pair of songs in an independent film called Nothing Sacred that premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

But let's not let the hot rod out of the barn just yet. Friedman put in some long hours -- years, actually -- working up to this point, and that history deserves a look. His love is unflagging for the musical genre that Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps defined in the mid-Fifties. Except for a brief resurrection in the early Eighties by an MTV-approved anachronism called the Stray Cats, rockabilly has rarely rolled beyond the purview of its primarily Deep South caretakers. But Friedman just couldn't keep his passion locked up with the horses and heifers forever.

"Six years ago I ran an ad in a little rag looking for a rockabilly guitar player and upright bass player," he reminisces in a no-hurries, no-worries Southern drawl. "The fourth guy that called was Jim Lavender and he came out and it just seemed to click. At the time he was a big fan of that Stevie Ray Vaughan. He liked him a lot, but he also liked the guys that Stevie Ray was influenced by, a lot of the blues guys. And he was kind of intrigued by the rockabilly stuff. Six and a half years ago the Stray Cats had died off, and he was a big fan of those guys. We just got together and started jamming out here in the barn, and then one thing led to another."

That would include the addition of drummer Farran, whom Friedman implored, "just bring your brushes and snare drum," and bassist Perissi, who the bandleader decided would suffice until he found himself a real bass player -- the kind with an upright, not a newfangled electric. Of course the pickin's around Crabapple were slim, so Friedman learned to live with, and eventually came to value, the versatility of Perissi's Fender P Bass.

The thirtysomething singer says his band started messing with originals right from the get-go, throwing in the occasional obscure cover to round out the set. The first gig was at a local backroads eatery. "We went down to Roswell and played a barbecue restaurant," Friedman says with a hearty laugh. "I begged this guy to let us come in there and play this one night. We had a lot of our friends out. Everybody seemed to like it. We did that for probably six months or so, just played around Crabapple and Roswell. But man, we were just having such a damn good time back there at these big hootenannies, playing little silly barbecue restaurants. And I just said, 'We got to go downtown in Atlanta and see if anybody likes this stuff.'"

They did like it. In fact, the usually cliquish patrons of the Star, a place that claims to be the birthplace of the fast-growing redneck underground, gave the Indians a comfortable home away from home. "All the rockabilly and alternative country bands play there," Friedman explains. "It's a little juke joint, but that's kind of where we started out. We worked our way up from that and finally we got to a point where we had a good following in town and we all looked at each other and went, 'Well, hell, let's take it on the road and see if anybody likes us.'"

Before they could do that, however, they had to get something on tape. The Indians booked time at Shetler's Recording Barn in Crabapple and, with money supplied by the singer's mom, laid down nine originals that were the basis of their live set. Before long Michael Rothschild, an Atlanta advertising man moonlighting as an independent record label president, signed the band to his Landslide Records, re-recorded those nine songs along with six new ones, and released it in 1995 as Cigar Store Indians.

The band has been touring behind that disc since, but has just about wrapped a followup, to be titled El Baile de la Cobra (The Dance of the Cobra), on Deep South Records, a Raleigh, North Carolina, indie label responsible in part for debuting Southern acts Marcy Playground and Sister Hazel. Friedman says the change of label was an unfortunate but necessary circumstance.

"In a perfect world Michael Rothschild, who I love, would be the president of a major label. But right now he works part-time at this record stuff and he's at an advertising agency during the day. I just felt like if we were going to try to make a go at this stuff, I wanted some other people around us that were doing it full-time. This is all we've got. This is my life and our livelihood, and I just couldn't put our future with some guy who was doing it part-time. I wish that it wasn't that way. I begged him to leave that advertising agency and just go full-time with his label. But it's hard when you get to be a certain age. It's hard to just quit and start a record label and not have a paycheck coming in."

So the band moved to Deep South. Friedman says the new record, scheduled for an August release, represents the Indians' rockabilly passion but also reflects the band's personal and professional growth. "I think it still sounds like us, but like we've grown three years," he says. "It's a little bit rougher around the edges. It's a little bit more raw. Some of the songs have a lounge feel to them. It still has that fun element. You know, if you were having a party and you wanted to slide something in there to put everybody in a good mood -- to get silly and stand on some tables and chairs -- it still has that element. That part hasn't changed. But it sounds better to me because it's a little bit more spooky. A little bit more mean. That stuff appeals to me. I'm a big fan of Halloween. That's my favorite holiday, so it's got that element in there."

Even if the new tunes have moved beyond the countrified charm of "Hot Rod Concerto," the harmony-heavy put-down of white-collar men competing for a girlfriend's attentions in "Pinstripe Suit," or the honky-tonkin' "Arms Around Me," Cigar Store Indians still provide a riotous retro hoedown not often found outside Friedman's rural Georgia. And the way he sees it, musical growth ain't all that bad.

"I've always felt that if it feels good, if it's a part of us, and we can pull it off and it's coming from the heart, then there's a place for real music," Friedman says. "If it's real, then it's gonna make sense and it'll come off."

Cigar Store Indians perform Saturday, June 27, at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave; 757-1807. Kramer Goes Berzerk and 18 Wheelers open the show. Doors open at 10:00 p.m. Tickets cost $6.

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