The woeful state of mainstream country music was a hot topic among the artists who took part in the recent HighTone Records Roadhouse Revival. The package tour showcased the Oakland-based independent label's roster of new-country trailblazers, including Buddy Miller, Dale Watson, and former Blasters' guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin, all of whom have been overlooked by the conservative industry types who preside over Nashville's music community. Robert Williams, a.k.a. Big Sandy, was also part of the tour, leading his band the Fly-Rite Boys night after night through white-hot sets of retro-style Western swing that has more common ground with traditional honky-tonkers such as Hank Thompson than with pop-country goobers like Garth Brooks. Not surprisingly, Williams found himself in the thick of the tour-bus tirades about the dwindling number of real country artists.
"We'd talk all the time about what's gone wrong in country music," he recalls during a phone interview from his home in Anaheim, California. "We were all just wondering what went wrong. You can follow the music along from its roots and see this great progression with all these great things feeding into it -- other influences and other kinds of music -- and then all of a sudden, I don't know, things just went wrong. I've been hearing this talk for a while, but it sure seems like things are worse than ever to me."
Still, the 32-year-old singer, songwriter, and bandleader doesn't have much reason to complain. Williams and his cowboy-garbed quartet have managed to find an audience not only among honky-tonk purists, but also with guitar-crazed punk rockers and the cocktail-swilling inhabitants of the bachelor-pad underground. They haven't yet cracked the country charts, but their most recent video ("My Sinful Days Are Over") has made several appearances on the Nashville Network, country music's answer to MTV. "We're doing pretty well right now, so I don't dwell too much on all the bad in country music," Williams notes. "I have some musician friends who can go on and on about it, and everything they're saying is right. But with us, we're out there playing music, and whatever happens is just fine. I want a lot, but I'm not going to knock myself out. As it is now, we get to travel all over the world and make enough money to buy old records, and that's great with me."
Buying old records is how the Fly-Rite Boys came together. Williams, bass player Wally Hersom, and drummer Bobby Trimble were all rabid rockabilly fans who, during the early Eighties, dug through thrift stores and record shops for rare singles and 78s by obscure Fifties artists such as Mac Curtis and Sleepy LaBeef. They bounced around in various Southern California combos, playing local clubs and house parties and covering the lost classics of their cult heroes, as well as mixing in some of Williams's homage-laden originals. As the Fly-Rite Trio, they released a pair of revivalist rockabilly long players (1990's Fly Rite with Big Sandy and 1992's On the Go). Soon, though, the group began to outgrow the sonic restrictions of the genre and looked elsewhere for inspiration.
"Early on, I decided to write my own stuff in a rockabilly style, and I came as close as I could to imitating that style," Williams states. "After we added a steel-guitar player [Lee Jeffriess] to the lineup, that let us explore other territory such as Western swing, honky-tonk, and country boogie. We were just digging deeper into the music's roots, trying to get away from the whole rockabilly thing because, to an extent, it can be kind of limiting."
The new Fly-Rite sound -- introduced on their 1994 HighTone debut Jumping from 6 to 6 -- wasn't really new at all. Its roots are in the hopped-up boogie-based style of the late-Forties/early-Fifties pre-rock era, when white country guys such as Moon Mullican and Hank Thompson were incorporating into their music the styles of black R&B guys such as Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. The emphasis on fiddle and steel guitar kept this hybrid grounded in country and western, but the rhythm section rocked to the sexual beat of hard-bopping jump blues. The jazz-laden sounds of Western swing icons such as Bob Wills and Milton Brown were also stirred into the mix.
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On last year's Swingin' West, their fourth and most recent release, the Fly-Rite Boys re-create with astonishing accuracy the sound of vintage Western swing. Throughout the Dave Alvin-produced set, Jeffriess peels off intricate steel-guitar licks with the flash and finesse of masters such as Speedy West and Johnny Gimble, and is answered by the nimble fretwork of guitarist Ashley Kingman. The sound is driven by the shuffling drums and clickety-clack slap-back bass of Trimble and Hersom, respectively, and Williams's drawling tenor evokes the earnest delivery of a young Buddy Holly. His original songs, meanwhile, cover the genre's standard terrain, where hearts get broken, good girls go bad, and roadside bars are bathed by the light from glowing neon beer signs. Both "My Sinful Days Are Over" and "We Tried to Tell You" are patterned after the advice-doling novelty hits of Louis Jordan and Tex Williams, and "Blueberry Wine" is a fine drinking song drawn from the same rockabilly tap as the oft-covered classic "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee." Occasionally, Williams will knock out a ready-made classic of his own: "If I Wrote a Song (About Our Love Affair)" is simply beautiful, a wide-eyed weeper worthy of Carl Perkins or even Hank Williams. It's derivative as hell, sure, but it's also gorgeous.
"I know I'm not coming up with anything new, so I don't think too much about trying to top any of those old records," Williams confesses. "I try to stay away from too many of the cliches in the music, but I think that when you're doing any kind of traditional music there's only so much you can do that's original. It's a challenge to be creative when there's so little out there that hasn't been done. I'm not trying to break any new ground, but I figure the music will be new to somebody."
Although the Fly-Rite Boys are shamelessly retro and, given the band's penchant for rolled-up dungarees and flashy Western shirts, slightly corny, Williams insists there's nothing hokey about their music. "This isn't some gimmick to me," he contends. "I really hope people don't look at it as a novelty thing. This is just the kind of music that gets to us -- the straight country stuff like Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Faron Young. That's the music that means the most to me. I'm not sure I can explain why, but it touches me in a certain way. There's something about it that I don't get out of most of the music I hear nowadays." He pauses for a moment, then offers the best explanation he can. "I guess it just sounds real."
Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys perform Tuesday, April 2, with opening band Kalimen, at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave; 757-1807. Showtime is 11:00. Admission is $6.