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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."
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."
Bloodshot Records, an alternative country label, helped to promote the tour. Bloodshot's also putting two Grievous/Inbreds songs (one from each band) on the label's Hellbent compilation, to be released next month. The disc will give the Grievous gang a chance to pluck its stuff alongside similar acts like the Starkweathers from Kansas City, the Eleanor Roosevelts out of St. Louis and Dallas faves The Old 97s.
There's apparently quite a posse of country-fed bands lining up on the surrounding hills. The Angels and the Inbreds plan on saddling up with 'em.
"I've seen in trade magazines where they've come up with a category that includes everything from Mary Chapin Carpenter to Waylon Jennings to Tom Petty," says Henzerling. "It's called 'Americana.' They even have a chart for it. I don't want to be called 'Americana,' but it seems to make the most sense."
"People who go for contemporary country music probably consider us outdated," says Sepulveda. "But to us, this kind of music can't be outdated. It's always going to be cool.