Country Comfort

The 18 Wheelers prove you can go down home again

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."

The 18 Wheelers: "Miami is for the most part indifferent, sometimes even openly hostile, to a lot of American roots music"
The 18 Wheelers: "Miami is for the most part indifferent, sometimes even openly hostile, to a lot of American roots music"

Details

The 18 Wheelers perform almost every Saturday night at Scotty's Landing, 3381 Pan American Dr, Coconut Grove. Admission is usually $5. Call 305-854-2626 or visit www.18wheelers.org for more information.

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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."

"Latins aren't hip to country at all," adds drummer Robert Slade LaMont, who is Cuban himself. "And the younger crowd doesn't want to know about anything other than Led Zeppelin or U2."

"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."

"Everyone likes this music ... from little kids to older folks," says vocalist and rhythm guitarist Paul Feltman. "It's not just cultural. American roots music is familiar to the ear of most people regardless of nationality because it is basic and similar to roots music in other cultures."

"Some are quite surprised to find that they are enjoying a type of music that they had made a point to avoid in the past, and that's really cool — to be a sort of musical proselytizer," DeAngelis maintains. "For others it's because they've discovered this side of American music through the recent Johnny Cash movie Walk the Line or maybe O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or they've gotten hip to the whole Americana thing."

Even so, the bandmates seem somewhat reticent to typecast their sound. While the music generally takes a traditional tack, the group sports a thoroughly modern attitude. "Deep down the band is too steeped in the traditions of rock and roll to be an honest-to-goodness country band," DeAngelis observes. "The energy and attitude of rock music propels us beyond being a dyed-in-the-wool country band.... We all share a love for this style of music, [but] no one in the Wheelers is going to wear a damn cowboy hat or vote Republican."

Despite being weaned on classic rock — the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Elton John — and inheriting a collection of forty-fives from an older brother and sister ("one-hit-wonder psychedelic garage bands from the mid-Sixties like the Count Five, the Standells, the Music Machine, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Move, the Blues Magoos"), DeAngelis says the influence of country music was never far away while he was growing up. "Dad is a huge fan of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bob Wills and his band would come and play at the army air corps base Dad was stationed at in 1945. Even now he insists on hearing öSan Antonio Rose' at least once a day, which sorta drives my mom crazy.

"I didn't really get into country music until I started listening to the Byrds and Bob Dylan. I just went backwards from there into Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons ... then Merle Travis, Hank Williams, Buck Owens and His Buckaroos. This happened somewhere around 1980 or '81, when I was seventeen or eighteen years old," DeAngelis recalls. "So I was listening to the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Sex Pistols and guys like Merle Haggard at the same time. When I was in high school, my next-door neighbor had a family bluegrass band. I remember going to sleep at night, hearing them practice stuff like 'Boil That Cabbage Down' and 'The Old Home Place.' Southern rock was huge in Central Florida when I was in high school and junior high school. I had to play the stuff in some bands I was in and when I was jamming with guys, but I always sorta dismissed it as shit-kicking music for rednecks. I appreciate it now, but at the time, I guess I was trying to distance myself from the whole redneck culture thing that was pretty dominant in Central Florida at the time."

The real turning point came when he discovered Gram Parsons, an influential member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers as well as the musician many credit with introducing country music to the rock and roll faithful. DeAngelis grew up near Parsons's hometown, which provided a further sense of affinity.

"The first time I ever heard about Gram Parsons was when I asked my brother if anyone from our area had ever hit it big in the music business," DeAngelis muses. "With the exception of Jim Morrison, who went to Melbourne High School, Gram Parsons was the only guy around my area to make a name for himself. He was from the town of Winter Haven. Some guy from my hometown of Satellite Beach played bass with him. Gram had a number of bands that used to play a teen club called the Tiger's Den up in Cocoa. The 18 Wheelers share something with Gram's situation in the fact that we're playing this kind of music for audiences here in Miami that, generally speaking, aren't that well versed in the genre of country music. So a lot of this stuff is brand-new for them in spite of the fact that some of the songs are a half-century old."

Parsons seems to be more than a mere influence, though. As far as the Wheelers are concerned, he's more a patron saint. "As a fan of the Byrds from their release of öMr. Tambourine Man' in 1965, I always counted them as an early and major influence on my playing style," says singer and lead guitarist John Gilson. "The blend of rock and roll and twangy country always seemed to appeal to me ... and when Gram joined the band, the move to country rock was complete."

"I listened to quite a bit of Dylan and Springsteen — they were favorites of my older brothers," Feltman recalls. "As for Gram, he was the one that tied all of the country rock together for me, especially when I found out about his close association to Keith Richards and his influence on the Stones."

DeAngelis and Feltman first played together with guitarist Ben Peeler (who would later join the Mavericks, Miami's seminal country-rock combo) in a group that went by the unlikely name of the Whistling Tinheads. DeAngelis describes it as "an anti-grunge band" that featured original music with more of an English influence (i.e., Rockpile, Nick Lowe, Squeeze) mixed with more obscure covers and the occasional country-rock or rockabilly offering. After the Tinheads broke up, DeAngelis formed the Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice, dropping the country connections entirely. "That band was all about playing concise, humorous little pop tunes about odd stuff like hand puppets, worms, and credit card debt," he remarks. "We did a lot of song parody too. We had a polka medley of hits by Jim Morrison and the Doors, for instance. I think the closest we came to country music was a bluegrass medley of songs by bands whose members had died suffocating in their own vomit."

Around the same time, DeAngelis took a day job as a studio engineer, honing his technical skills by working with up-and-coming bands like the Mavericks and Marilyn Manson, and as a bass player for local funk outfit Raw B Jae and the Liquid Funk, with whom he still occasionally performs. He eventually reunited with Peeler in a short-lived country outfit dubbed the Pitchfork Trio, subsequently coaxing Feltman into the fold before enlisting drummer Jordan Lash. It was Lash who suggested they rename themselves the 18 Wheelers.

That was 1997, but over the next couple of years, the band underwent a pair of further personnel changes. Lash left in 1998, handing the drumming chores over to LaMont, formerly of Nuclear Valdez, a Miami band that had earned its national pedigree after releasing three albums on Epic Records. Peeler departed the following year and was replaced by Gilson, who had spent the previous 25 years playing blues and R&B in California and the Northeast, in addition to serving as lead guitarist for a touring Elvis Presley impersonator. Though the band's roster has been stable since 2002, the Wheelers occasionally augment their live gigs with auxiliary players: guitarist David Brophy of the Little Nicky Trio; pedal steel player Bob Wlos, a onetime member of Americana outfits the Silos and the Atomic Cowboys; and drummers Paul Paitchell and Sam Levin, who occasionally fill in when LaMont isn't available.

"We've got three guys in the band who can sing lead vocal, so any one of us will bring a song in," says DeAngelis. "We'll give it a try ... and if it sounds good, we add it to our repertoire.... We've always done original material in our sets, [but] given the obscurity of many of our cover songs, most people assume our originals are actually cover songs."

Several songs from their sets — along with three originals — were captured on the band's first CD, 1994's Songs from the Road. DeAngelis says its primary purpose was to provide a demo that would help them get gigs. "The fastest and cheapest way to do it was as a live recording. We set up a sixteen-track recording rig in Tobacco Road one night and just recorded three-hour-long sets of tunes in front of an audience on a Friday night. What made it on the CD was everything that was reasonably in tune, with the least amount of mistakes. That was the criteria for what made it on the album — songs that were in tune and in time!"

Though the album opened a few doors and even garnered some overseas sales ("obscure places like the Netherlands and Scandinavia, thanks to the Internet"), the band members claim their forthcoming CD, as yet untitled, will provide a more definitive showcase for their songwriting skills. DeAngelis and Feltman take the bulk of the songwriting credits, and Gibson contributed a pair of tunes. "John has a couple of gems, so I guess he decided that he didn't have to do any more 'cause they were so good," Feltman comments.

"Some of it has been part of our live show for a number of years, and some of it hasn't been performed live yet," DeAngelis says of the album. "A few of the tunes are in a traditional feel, a couple in a more contemporary Americana mold, and a couple sort of defy description. There's some humor in there alongside the crying-in-your-beer stuff.

"We've got some label interest, so I guess we'll see what develops. Right now we just want to make a good CD and keep doing what we're doing."

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