Honky-Tonk Angels

The Valley's longest-twanging C&W/rock outfit charms a third time with a no-nonsense new CD

Try to imagine another genre-driven outfit dressing up its country rock with the most incongruous get-ups for four Halloweens in a row. The first year, the Grievous Angels masqueraded as the Village People. The next year they did two shows, one dressed as Mormon missionaries and the other dressed like the Unabomber. They donned blackface in '96 to impersonate the 1976 NBA All-Stars, while last year found them as various castaways from Gilligan's Island.

While perfectly at home with the wacky label, that "No Depression" angle clearly irritates Jon Rauhouse, mostly for its Johnny-come-lately connotations.

"We need a new depression. We're not depressed enough for No Depression," he jokes before turning serious. "They had us in their magazine a few times. The whole thing is based around the Uncle Tupelo thing, and it ventured off into what people call alternative country, which to me sounds like . . ."

"A bunch of fetishists," interjects Henzerling.
"Yeah," nods Rauhouse, who's been playing this rock-cum-country thing for 20 years and can rattle off all the cycles. "No Depression magazine and those people only go back to Uncle Tupelo. Before that there was the Marshall Tucker Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, the Flying Burrito Brothers, all these bands did the same thing of adding the country and rock together and toured it. And it only got to a certain level, like this is only getting to a certain level."

"I guess we've been a part of this wave, but we never did what we were doing because of it," adds Henzerling. "When Russ and I first started the thing, it was '91 or '92. We're just doing music we like to play, and a significant number of people enjoy it."

Before moving here, Russ and bassist Mickey Ferrell had an L.A. garage-pop band called the Lawn Boys. Henzerling saw action in various rock bands from the Strangeloves to a stint as the Gin Blossoms' drummer about 10 summers ago, a role he reprised in the Blossoms' side project, the Best David Swaffords Cover Band. Jesse Navarro drummed for a band called Medicine Wheel. The country and rock camps seemed to meet under the table near the bar, probably with Dwight Yoakam or the Replacements playing on the jukebox.

The then-quartet christened itself Earl C. Whitehead and the Grievous Angels, prefixing Russ' grandpappy's name since some crafty Canadians already had that grievous moniker. Yet you can hang around the band for weeks and not hear the name Earl uttered once. In fact, you're more likely to hear someone call Russ "Ned."

Early on, Russ and Dan found a lucrative sideline with an acoustic alter ego they called Ned Beatty and the Inbreds.

"There were a lot of places that would hire us for playing at a lower volume," says Russ. "We started making more money playing lower-volume acoustic gigs at the Congo and Rhythm Room. We played outdoors on Mill Avenue for all the ASU games. It wasn't just a cover band. There were a lot of originals, too, done bluegrass style. Different songs from the Grievous Angels'."

This duality rears its heads quite vividly on the group's first release in 1995, a seven-song affair called Angels and Inbreds, which neatly splits between four electric Grievous-type songs and three acoustic Inbred-type songs. The second release, New City of Sin, and the latest also include two or three hillbillyish hoe-downs.

Henzerling credits the official addition of Rauhouse after the first CD's release as the point when the sound solidified for both groups. "If we were to have a trademark sound beside the harmonies between Russ and me, it would be the pedal steel and guitar playing off each other. John knows how to play banjo, mandolin, Hawaiian guitars--he just adds a lot of cool sounds."

Typically, the first night Rauhouse showed up to play with the band, there was tremendous infighting and cussing between Russ and then-drummer John Fogarty under way. Fogarty's designed the latest CD cover, offering proof that a tongue-lashing from Russ needn't be fatal.

By 1995, the group had already played South by Southwest and was snapped up by the newly launched Bloodshot Records from Chicago, a relationship that continues on through to Miles on the Rail, for which Bloodshot boasts presales of 1,500.

The Angels seem surprised by how well they've been accepted in the other 46 states they've played. A track from New City of Sin, "Carolina Bound," got major rotation on country stations in both of the Carolinas (presumably because of the title) and in the Midwest. Stranger still, "Dear John," a track off the local Hayden Ferry compilation Jukebox Cantina Combo Platter, went to number eight in Norway.

"We're also number 17 in Bosnia," cackles Russ. "Number one was Aqualung by Jethro Tull."

Actually, everyone seems to have an affinity for shuffle train beats without the swing, except for this ol' Valley. "We just played Portland for North by Northwest, and it was packed out into the street. There were people singing our songs. The same with New Yorkers, too," says Dan before remarking, "we've never really conquered this town."

Airplay is virtually nonexistent for a country band, but when someone at KDKB played them recently, they were called the Gravy-ous Angels. "'Grievous' seems to be the most misspelled word in the English language," Mickey says. "There's a bar in Austin that spelled it G-R-E-V-U-S. Do you think it was because they ran out of letters?"

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