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Scotty's Landing is laid-back, even by South Florida standards. Flanked by Miami City Hall and the infinitely more expensive Chart House, it's tucked behind one of several marinas that line the water along Coconut Grove's South Bayshore Drive. Unadorned and nondescript, Scotty's is little more than a canvas-covered wood deck to accommodate some casual dining burgers, conch salads, inexpensive seafood fare and a smallish bar frequented by the requisite sea salts who take respite after spending a day on their sailboats. It's the kind of joint where you can bring the kids, the dog, or both, and meet a few chums without the heavy financial obligation a night on South Beach entails.
It's also a favorite haunt for the 18 Wheelers, who can usually be found at least a couple of weekends every month holding court underneath the towering tree to the right of the entrance, banging out a set list stocked with reliable country and roots-rock standards. Like Scotty's itself, the band seems somehow out of sync in a town where rap, hip-hop, and Latin music are generally the norm and run-of-the-mill cover bands recycle that tired one-off dance standard "Play That Funky Music" so relentlessly it's become a local anthem. By contrast, the Wheelers set themselves apart, tapping into songs etched with the authenticity of genuine, dyed-in-the-wool Americana. Listening to them crank out convincing covers of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" or Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," audiences can easily imagine they're not in South Florida but rather in some downtown dive in Austin or Nashville.
Bassist, cofounder, and chief 18 Wheeler dealer Chris DeAngelis concedes that retooling roots music would be much easier in a place where Americana is more the norm cities like Austin, Nashville, or Bakersfield, California. In fact he once considered leaving Miami as other past members of the band have done but decided otherwise because he didn't want to break up the band. "I think you can get your act together anywhere. Where you go to find opportunity after that is up to you."
Still it's no surprise that staying the course along their country roads while attempting to pave their local inroads has been challenging at best. "Most of the music I'm into never had really wide appeal here," DeAngelis complains. "For a city this big, you'd expect a much more vibrant and varied scene than what we have here. But when you consider that English is a second language for more than half the people living here, you can begin to understand why things are so tough for people playing music that is sung in English. There is a healthy scene here where singers, writers, and bands are moving onto bigger things, but it's almost all in Spanish."
"Miami, and South Florida in general, is for the most part indifferent, sometimes even openly hostile, to a lot of American roots music, so the number of musicians who enjoy or understand honky-tonk is a limited one," DeAngelis laments. "But we've found each other, and throughout the course of the band's history, we've been able to carve out a niche for ourselves here."
"We joke that we're the best country band in South Florida because we're the only country band in South Florida," LaMont chuckles.
"Yeah, it's somewhat frustrating being who we are where we are," DeAngelis admits. "Somehow I don't think we'll ever share the mike with a DJ spinning techno in a club on Washington Avenue, but that's okay. A lot of people come to Miami looking for the glitz and glamour. That's the image the city projects in the media, and it's partially true. A band playing honky-tonk doesn't' t exactly provide the soundtrack to that dream."
But DeAngelis suggests that even in South Florida's oh-so-hip environs, there can be a place for a down-to-earth, down-home outfit like the 18 Wheelers. "There's plenty of people who view that kind of scene as pretentious and pointless," he insists. "I think some folks see the music we provide as a sort of antidote to that stuff. There's no reason why you can't go clubbing on Friday night, then hang outdoors at Scotty's Landing with the 18 Wheelers on Saturday night."
Or, for that matter, Tobacco Road, Churchill's, and Fritz & Franz Bierhaus, where the band has become a regular fixture. "Being around as long as we have, the 18 Wheelers have actually outlasted most of the clubs we've played at," he observes. "We get hired for private parties a lot and have actually played at a pretty large number of weddings. We're the wedding band of the 21st Century!
"In general we've found that when we play a gig, we've got a certain core of folks who show up to see us and also a number of people who just happen to be in the club that evening," DeAngelis continues. "We've done gigs where there are Haitian people dancing alongside punks and grandparents.... For a few of them, the music reminds them of their home, or it's what their parents or grandparents used to listen to; you know, a nostalgia thing."