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By Derek Askey
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.
A native of Chandler, Greg Swanholm's zeal for music didn't develop until an unusually late age. "My dad had a really great eight-track collection when I was a kid," he recalls. "Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle [Haggard], Ray Price, and I always grew up with that stuff in the background and always liked it. But there was quite a long period where I never bought any records. I mean, I can't really remember buying my first record until I was 22--and that was a result of seeing the Varmits and the Geezers."
Witnessing the passion and energy of local roots rockers firsthand had a profound effect on the would-be guitarist. "Those guys made it real to me," he says. "I would go to clubs and I'd see Kevin [Daly] playing and guys like Bruce Hamblin and Mario Moreno playing. And when you see guys doing it up-close, all of a sudden it becomes real, and that's when I started buying records."
Setting off on what would become a crash course in American roots music, Swanholm began to familiarize himself with the acknowledged masters of the form. "I got my Gene Vincent, I got my Farmer Boys, Eddie Cochran, the Burnette Brothers, Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef--all of them. But I still had no intention of playing at all. My only intention was to get deeper and deeper into this music and learn as much about it as I could and see the local guys as much as I could."
Unfortunately, Swanholm's informal musical education was interrupted by the demands of real life as he left Phoenix, heading south to Tucson to study computer science at the University of Arizona. By the time he returned to the Valley in the late '80s, the thriving cow-punk and retro-billy scene that he'd left behind had all but disappeared. "I came back and Hellfire was gone, and the Varmits had fractured into three different bands, all of which I liked, but still, it just wasn't the same. Nobody was doing anything like what had been going on before," he says.
The quaint dives that had once made up the loose-knit local scene were being replaced by new venues located around the ASU campus. Tempe was quickly emerging as the new focal point for original live music where a new scene, spearheaded by the jangle-pop sound of bands like the Gin Blossoms and the Feedbags, was developing.
This turn of events led Swanholm to one inevitable conclusion. "With all that was going on, I thought, 'Shit, something's gotta happen here,' and when it didn't, that's when I decided that I was going to have to make my own fun."
"I decided I wanted to learn how to play and start a band," Swanholm says. "So to get my chops, I started out with [Johnny Cash guitarist] Luther Perkins, who I remembered from my youth, and who to me is still the premier guitar player. There are a lot of guys out there that I love, but Luther is still the foundation of it all."
Perkins' deceptively simple picking patterns are clearly the basis for Swanholm's guitar style--although it's also clear that the legendary Cash sideman wasn't the inspiration for the guitarist's highly unorthodox technique. Unlike most natural left-handed players who restring the guitar so that the thicker strings are on top, Swanholm--who says he didn't know any better--left the strings the way they were (upside down) and began his informal training from there. Swanholm proved a quick study, advancing rapidly from early honky-tonk to the more fully realized West Coast picking of Roy Nichols and Jimmy Bryant.
Swanholm's unorthodox playing style and natural musical ability are the subject of some good-natured ribbing from his bandmates. "It occurred to me a couple of years ago that it's a sign of mental illness if you can teach yourself how to play an instrument," says Daly, laughing. "It really is. If you can do that, it's a sign that you're deranged, and doing it backwards, no less, that's just ridiculous."
For Swanholm, the experience of learning how to play so late in life wasn't the result of any savant-like ability but rather a desire to emulate the sounds he had heard since his youth. "It was just the most basic thing, really--'find the big string and hit it as often as possible.' Just like a lab rat pulling the lever. Just thump it and try and make it work. And then things kind of progressed from there--or digressed, whichever way you want to put it."
Recording sessions for Play the Good One, which took place in Rigsby's state-of-the-art Tempest studio, were a far cry from the crude conditions that resulted in Flathead's 1996 self-titled debut. The quaint, almost nostalgic sound of the record was an effect that Swanholm admits was far from intentional. "We recorded all the instruments together in the living room, but the singing was recorded in the kitchen," he says, "and we had mike cords running to an amp that was in the bathroom in the bathtub to get that extra tile reverb."
As Ramirez notes, "It ended up having so much reverb in it we had to use pillows just to try and deaden the space, 'cause it sounded so weird."
Despite the comical recording setup, Flathead is a sprite collection of instrumentals, covers and hillbilly-flavored originals like "Alcohaulin" and "Lordy Mercy." While the record found a decent local audience (and enough of a national one that the group was asked to contribute to the 1997 Bloodshot compilation Straight Outta' Boone County), it suffers from an overly bright sonic quality that failed to reflect the band's gritty, bottom-heavy live sound.
Swanholm concedes that the D.I.Y. attitude that had sparked his desire to form the group in the first place was the main factor in the roughhewn quality of the debut. "We just thought, 'Shoot, we have these songs and we might as well get them out.' But we had no idea what we were doing as far as production and technique goes--in the fine Phoenix tradition of Lee Hazlewood."
With Rigsby at the helm for the new record, the group was confident he would be able to accurately capture their sound the way he had previously done with fellow Tempe twangers the Revenants on their Artists and Whores release. With the results in hand, the group is effusive in its praise of Rigsby's contribution.
"It's really a result of Clarke knowing our sound and being in an environment where he could capture it straightaway," says Daly. "Aside from all that, he just has a great instinct for recording. I mean, he could make a genius recording with this," says Daly, pointing to the portable mini-disc player recording the conversation. "The bottom line is that it's the ear, not the gear, and he's got the ears."
While at Tempest, the group was witness to a steady stream of Rigsby's big-name clientele, many of whom passed through the studio while the band was recording. One such encounter was especially memorable, as it resulted in the group crossing paths with one of their all-time honky-tonk heroes, Waylon Jennings.
"We actually got bumped one day because Waylon needed to come in and do a demo, which we really didn't mind all that much," Swanholm says with a smile.
Aside from facilitating contact with country royalty, Rigsby's greatest contribution to the new album was restoring a subtle but critical aspect of the group's sound which was all but forgotten amid the ramshackle recording of their debut.
"In our live shows, there's a lot of vocal harmonizing going on, and that's a big part of the music and the sound that we have. So we really wanted to feature that a lot more on this record than on the first one," says Ramirez. "The first time, it was something that we really didn't concentrate on. We were just trying to play and put something on tape. But this time we knew that we really wanted to capture that part of the band."
Swanholm's deft songwriting touch is also on display, as he almost always manages to capture the intricate subtleties of authentic country music without ever slipping into a parody of the genre. The disc opener, "Hitched," and the homespun bounce of "Can't Complain" are the kinds of songs that most alt-country groups would likely turn into overly muscular bar rock, while in Swanholm's hands they are given a firmly traditional treatment.
As evidenced by the disc's artwork and songs like "10-Rodge" and "Long White Line," a trucking influence also plays a major role in the new album. The easily identifiable stylistic qualities found in the music of rig-rock pioneers like Dave Dudley and Red Simpson hold special meaning for the band.
"Trucking music had that same kind of guitar tone that turned me on as a kid," Swanholm says. "Luther Perkins and some of that early Don Rich stuff with Buck Owens, those guys were playing straight through tube amps, and it just had that 'sound.' And, of course, Vince and Kevin were already very familiar with that stuff, so it seemed really natural."
Daly is quick to note the rich diversity within the subgenre, citing the importance of trucking songs by traditional bluegrass artists like the Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse as prime examples. "Those guys were doing rig-rock bluegrass style. And those guys are straight-up bluegrass artists."
This amalgam of influences is what Daly feels most defines Flathead's hybrid sound. "That's the thing that's huge in all our backgrounds. I don't see any reason to segregate it, and those guys didn't either. So what you have is this straight-up country, bluegrass, rig-rock and all that clean '60s and early '70s pickin', it's all side by side and it's badass."
If Swanholm is the guiding force behind the music, then onstage the show clearly belongs to the wild-man antics of Daly and the controlled freneticism of Ramirez behind the drum kit. It's this unique combination of traditional style and over-the-top energy that has made Flathead shows a weird melting pot of hipsters, punks, cowboys and frat kids. It's a mix that Daly credits to the simple, danceable nature of the band's music.
Observing that the group's music shares many of the same formulaic and structural elements of the blues, Daly is quick to point out that "you can still get as rowdy as fuck to our stuff. I've seen people pogo to our music, so I know it can be done."
Maybe so, but exactly how did Flathead's music end up reaching the South American metal community? "A friend of ours who works for Sepultura played our first album as the warm-up tape for a show they were doing in this huge arena down in Brazil," Ramirez says. Despite the incongruity of the two styles, Daly is convinced that the obvious differences in language and culture can be overcome. "You'd be surprised how open people's ears are in other parts of the world. I think they could get into our stuff."
Flathead is scheduled to perform on Thursday, July 1, at Long Wong's in Tempe. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.