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Through it all, Sepulveda wanted someone to round out the band's more ragged country corners. He finally found the answer in Jon Rauhouse, an accomplished pedal-steel and Hawaiian-guitar player.
And so, with the Grievous lineup finally set (Sepulveda, Henzerling, Ferrell, Navarro and Rauhouse, if you're still hanging in there), the band celebrated its sudden stability by running face first into a creative wall.
"Grievous Angels was really cool when it first started," Sepulveda says. "It was just like being in your first band again. But after a while, after all the changes, I needed something to get the guys excited again."
Sufficient excitement was sparked on the road trip home from a performance last year at Austin, Texas' South by Southwest music confab. Sepulveda and Henzerling wrote a song, "No More Room in Hell," that had pronounced bluegrass shadings. They decided then and there to start an acoustic bluegrass band to accommodate the new song as well as future, like-minded efforts. Thus was born Ned Beatty and the Inbreds.
"I wanted to make it very clear that the Inbreds were not going to be the Grievous Angels stripped down," Sepulveda says. "It was not going to be Grievous Angels unplugged. It was going to be a different band with different songs."
To that end, the new group recruited banjo player Frank Mackey as a non-Grievous, full-time Inbred. And Ferrell, getting into the spirit of things, bought an upright bass from a local roots-music legend, longtime Varmits/Cowbillys regular Bruce Hamblin.
The Inbred experiment succeeded in giving new life to the Grievous Angels. The move also made for a nice double dose of traditional music by a growing clan of decided new traditionalists.
"None of us want the Inbreds to be a regular bluegrass band that goes by the rules," says Sepulveda. "We already broke the rules by having a percussionist in the band. Our name even breaks the rules. So when it comes to things like songwriting, we don't want to be an orthodox bluegrass band."
And when it comes to breaking rules, Sepulveda points an approving finger at country artists outside Nashville. He says a tape a friend made with Buck Owens Live at Carnegie Hall on one side and cosmic cowboy music by the Flatlanders on the other "totally changed my life. The Buckaroos were so crazy. They didn't play by the rules; they were loose, off the cuff. It was like their roots weren't just into hard-core country."
"They would send out these great melodies," adds Henzerling, "and then, all of a sudden, the band just flipped out on the chorus or the instrumental break."
As for the Flatlanders, Henzerling thinks the legendary early Seventies Texas band that included Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock "hearkens back to Hank Sr. more than anyone else I've ever heard." Sepulveda says he wouldn't mind covering every song the Flatlanders wrote.
But Sepulveda's also looking to corral individual identities for his own bands. To that end, Sepulveda's starting to lose the affected vocal twang that pushed early Grievous shows disquietingly close to parody.
"I used to sing that way a lot more, because this kind of music was new to me and I didn't know how to handle it," says Sepulveda. "People say I sing with a honky-tonk voice. That's because I sometimes have to sing through my nose to be heard above Dan's guitar. If that's what helps, I do it."
"I think when he puts too much affectation on it, it doesn't sound as good," says Henzerling. "But gradually, not only is he hitting the notes better, but he's got a more powerful voice. He's singing less like 'Buck' and more like 'Russ.'"
Sepulveda's increasing self-discovery worked well enough when the Grievous/Inbreds show hit the road last month for a minitour with stops along the way to Chicago. The band did well in Dallas, where, Sepulveda says, "the scene is like Mill Avenue times four as far as places to play." Norman, Oklahoma, was a bit slower: "We played in front of 12 Chinese tourists," Sepulveda says. "One of them kept asking me if I knew Garth Brooks."
Chicago, though, was a big success. The Inbreds performed in front of an enthusiastic crowd on a Friday night, and the next night, Grievous was on the bill of a sold-out show.
"There were over 500 people at the club," Sepulveda says of the Saturday gig. "You couldn't even see the floor; it was just wall-to-wall people. And all these people were there to watch music. They weren't sitting around trying to get laid; they weren't trying to play pool. They were there for the music, from the first song to the last."
The trip also included numerous nonmusic adventures, like becoming snowbound in Missouri during the worst storm to hit that state in decades. There was also a food-poisoning episode, with some bad broccoli-and-cheese soup felling Sepulveda. And then there was the fight between Sepulveda and Henzerling in the back of the band's Bronco as it rolled into Kansas City. "That was weird," Sepulveda says of the wrestling match. "But the next day, we made up, and I got a tattoo."