Rig and Roll

Flathead turns upside-down technique into a winning hybrid of raw country and roadhouse

Don't let the chain wallets, workman's plaid and hitched jeans fool you. Flathead is more unique than its retro-hillbilly appearance might lead you to believe. After all, how many bands can say they've shared a studio with Waylon Jennings, had their record played as a warm-up for an arena full of South American metalheads, or claim a legion of hard-core punks among their most dedicated fans?

Originally formed as a duo by guitarist/vocalist Greg Swanholm and drummer Vince Ramirez, the group became a three-piece in 1993 with the addition of bassist Ruth Wilson. The trio quickly earned a solid reputation with its unique blend of raw country and roadhouse. The band appeared on a number of local compilations and recorded a single before releasing its full-length debut in 1997 on Truxton Records.

Unfortunately, it was only a short time after the album's release that the group had seemingly ground to a halt with the loss of Wilson. As for her departure, the band is reluctant to get into specifics. "It was just a parting of the ways--like a mutual thing, basically," says Swanholm. "Well, maybe it wasn't so mutual, but it was something that just had to happen. Actually, Vince and I had decided to disintegrate the whole thing at that point. It was only a couple of months after that when I called him up and said, 'Hey, I got a couple more songs--let's just try and sing them for the hell of it.' Sure enough, we got together, and it was right there again."

Deciding to forge ahead, the band was in need of a bass player. They had to look no further than Kevin Daly, then playing with a local roots combo called Apocalypso (a group which at various times also performed as Occult 45, and Poontwang). A 20-year veteran of the Valley music scene, Daly had made his reputation as a member of a number of rowdy psychobilly outfits in the early and mid-'80s, most notably Grant and the Geezers, and Hellfire.

With Daly on board, the group rechristened itself D-Liar--a name that simply didn't catch on. "We played as D-Liar for a while--and no one had any idea it was us. People were like, 'If I knew it was you guys, I would have come out,'" recalls Ramirez.

The group ended up playing under the odd moniker for several months, including a March 1998 gig at Austin's SXSW music conference. Eventually, the trio reverted back to the name Flathead and was quickly able to reestablish its local reputation through a series of regular gigs at clubs like the Sail Inn and the Arizona Roadhouse.

Their fate took an even more positive turn when a mutual friend played a demo tape of the band for noted Tempe producer/engineer Clarke Rigsby, who was instantly taken with the group's offbeat blend of traditional styles. The group was ecstatic that Rigsby, who boasts some impressive country music credentials of his own, was interested in working with them.

The result of that collaboration is the newly released Play the Good One, an inspired collection of songs that surveys some of the most rugged terrain within the landscape of postwar country music. It's a refreshingly understated album and one that, in the truest sense, was more than 20 years in the making.

For Kevin Daly, music had always been an important part of daily life. Growing up in northern Virginia, a young Daly was exposed to the rich traditions of country and bluegrass.

"Around where I lived, bluegrass bands were the most popular acts," he says. "Once I got to the age where we would sneak into bars, we'd see these amazing bluegrass bands playing, doing these real low-key gigs."

As time progressed, Daly's hunger for wilder musical approaches led him to discover the earliest forms of rock 'n' roll. "There was a really strong blues scene on the East Coast at the time, and somehow it just wasn't crazy enough for me," he says. "I had to find something that was nuttier. Everybody wanted to play blues and start blues bands, and I did that for a while. But I'm not a blues guy.

"Then one night I saw Danny Gatton play at a club the size of my house. In addition to playing everything in the world from jazz to country, he played rockabilly. Then the next night I saw this great rockabilly outfit called the Memphis Rockabilly Band, and they just tore it up. They were doing all covers and jumping around and running up and down the bar--it was just wild. After that it was all over. I knew what I wanted to do."

A veteran of traditional Mexican and Latin-influenced punk bands, Kansas native Vince Ramirez arrived in Arizona in 1986. Briefly hooking up with a pair of local groups (including the Violent Femmes-influenced Soul Touch Skin), a frustrated Ramirez gave up playing for more than five years. His desire to play was rekindled when he was approached by Swanholm with the opportunity to play the kind of raw roots music that shared a deep connection with the traditions he had grown up with.

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