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Russell Sepulveda wears a cowboy hat and sings with a twang. His songs leave room for pedal-steel-guitar breaks, and his bands--both of 'em--cover C&W tunes by the likes of Buck Owens and Gram Parsons.
Sound like a country boy? Not quite.
"Country music today is so far from its roots," Sepulveda says over a few beers with some of his bandmates at his Tempe home. "Everything now is straightahead rock beats. It's because people line dance to that kind of music. It's what sells. We don't do that. We've never done that."
Sepulveda--a.k.a. Earl C. Whitehead, a stage name he uses in honor of his late grandfather--fronts Earl C. Whitehead and the Grievous Angels. He also rides herd over the borderline-bluegrass group Ned Beatty and the Inbreds; both bands are among the more distinctive acts on the Mill Avenue trail. They both play quasi-country music, a slightly twisted two-step sound that happens when lifelong rock 'n' rollers fall head over spurs for traditional country music.
"We're not like all these younger people who've suddenly gone country because it resembles safe rock 'n' roll," Sepulveda says. "It's like they can't handle Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Green Day, bands that we like. We play this kind of music just because we love playing it."
Adds Grievous/Inbreds guitarist Dan Henzerling, "People who really love the old, traditional stuff don't have any problem with us at all. They can't believe someone's doing this. They all hate the new country."
Core members Sepulveda, Henzerling and bassist Mickey Ferrell stumbled over their newfound roots by way of the Gin Blossoms, the Feedbags and various other noncountry cousins. Sepulveda, for example, used to play in an L.A.-based alternative band named the Lawnboys. He also played locally with South of Nowhere, an early Nineties Tempe band named after an old Gin Blossoms song. Henzerling, who briefly played with South of Nowhere, played drums with the still-struggling Blossoms for six months back in 1988. He quit for an ill-fated stab at the Seattle music scene with former Feedbag David Swafford (the name behind the Best David Swaffords, etc.). Henzerling admits that leaving the budding Blossoms wasn't the wisest of career moves.
"Are you kidding?" he says, laughing. "With all that money they're making now? But I never really felt the band was something I had a hand in, anyway. Plus, I always thought the better man [Phillip Rhodes] got the job."
As for Ferrell, his background includes stints with L.A. hard-core thrashers Basic Math in the early Eighties, followed by the more poppy 3D Picnic, which released three CDs on Cargo Records. Ferrell was also a long-standing Lawnboy with the increasingly disillusioned Sepulveda.
"I was just really tired of playing rock music," Sepulveda says of his eventual conversion to country. "I finally looked at traditional country music and said, 'This is it. This is the kind of music I want to play. I'm not going to switch to punk or whatever's in.' It's been three and a half years now, and I still have no desire to play other kinds of music."
Grievous Angels began with Sepulveda and Henzerling getting together to compare notes. "Dan knew a bunch of Dwight Yoakam songs, and he knew I liked Dwight," Sepulveda says. "So we decided to start out as a duo. It was going to be this open-mike thing, Earl C. Whitehead and Friends. We learned a bunch of cover songs, and really didn't think anything more of it."
More was thought of when Ferrell moved to the Valley to again hook up with Sepulveda. Two days after hitting town, Ferrell was onstage playing songs he hardly knew with the newly christened Angels.
"Our first show was at Hollywood Alley," Sepulveda recalls. "I think it was the first time that a country band had played the 'scene' in Tempe. And so it created a buzz, which was strange, because we were horrible. But we didn't care; we were having fun."
Sepulveda remembers early Grievous audiences as having fun, too. Curious listeners were also forgiving--at first.
"People were like, 'Look at these guys who used to play punk and rock 'n' roll and now they're playing country music.' That's what the buzz was. But once the novelty wore off, people were like, 'God, these guys really aren't that good.'"
The band got better by surviving a torturous cycle of roster refinement. The following musicians have at one time hung their hats with the Grievous Angels: an original drummer named Craig, a subsequent drummer named John Fogarty and current drummer Jesse Navarro; Jim Swafford sat in for a time on mandolin; Terry Garvin of Zen Lunatics played fiddle for a while, marking one of the first times he'd ever touched the instrument. Other names included Cody Ward, a fiddle player who now has a band playing casinos in Vegas; singer Jordan Snow, currently fronting the Superstition Band; and pedal-steel player Rob Hale, also now with the Superstition Band. Other pedal-steel hopefuls included Don Hiller and a guy the Angels remember only as "Bryan with a y."