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It's the second Friday night in a row I've been hanging out in Heather Rae Johnson's living room, listening to Johnson and her husband, Shannon Marino, roll through the repertoire of honky-tonk and hillbilly country tracks they play as Heather Rae and Her Moonshine Boys, peppered liberally with covers of the classics. The previous Friday night I good-naturedly demanded that Heather Rae play me Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" on the fiddle that she tickles so gracefully. She couldn't nail it then -- had never played it -- but tonight she's got a few bars down that she busts out for me impromptu when I walk in.
My mom would laugh at the thought of my requesting Charlie Daniels Band covers, as I wouldn't have been caught dead listening to that shit when I was a punk-rock teenager worshipping Screeching Weasel and Operation Ivy. But I've noticed over the past few years that I'm not the only one who's converted from punk rock to country, roots and Americana fare.
This evening in their living room, Heather Rae and Shannon (who's also done time on the bass for Flathead, and Al Foul and the Shakes) are joined by Jon Wolf, the guitarist who's been the second Moonshine Boy for about two months now. They're running through their set, preparing for both the New Times Music Showcase in Tempe April 17 (where they're nominated in the Best Americana category) and the impending release of their CD Just a Shot of Shine. The room is cluttered with Coors Light cans, a large Ramones poster is on the wall, and, as you might guess, some moonshine makes an appearance later in the night. In a black hat (almost matching Wolf's newly acquired one) Shannon plucks away at his upright bass most of the night, stopping to play the gee-tar occasionally, while Heather Rae switches between guitar and fiddle.
Heather Rae, 36, and Shannon, 32, share a similar punk-rock background with me, having been raised on Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, the Misfits and Black Flag, and both agree that as teens they could've never predicted this trajectory. Another shared trait is having family that listened to roots classics -- my mom was a Patsy Cline freak, and had the Charlie Daniels records that inspired my request; my big brother was into Hank Williams, Jr. I remember my grandma in Texarkana, Texas, had an all-black decorative Johnny Cash thimble in her thimble display case.
"I never really got into country music. Daddy always listened to Johnny Cash, Waylon, and Willie," Heather Rae says. "I kind of liked it, but not so much, y'know."
For Shannon's part, the country soul is in his blood, even if he didn't realize it until a few years back. "My parents listened to it, my whole family . . . I got a lot of hillbilly kind of kin, always listening to the country, so it's always been a part of my life, I guess," he says. "I started listening to the rockabilly and the country and stuff when I got sick of everything else, basically when the jocks started fuckin'-goddamn-tackling people in the pit."
Heather Rae and Her Moonshine Boys was conceived while both Heather Rae and Shannon were playing in the rockabilly outfit Exit 56, prior to their marriage (it'll be six years April 1). It was Heather Rae's first foray as a singer, and her lifetime of studying violin (which she also teaches) made the transition to fiddle player an easy one.
The parallels between the punk rock we grew up with and the honky-tonk they play (and I listen to) are easy enough to pick out. "Realism," Shannon states with a tone of gravitas. "Truthfulness. Straight from the heart, that no bullshit kind of thing. This is how I fuckin' think and that's that."
"It's just what comes out, it's what they live, and they have to write songs about it," Heather Rae says of the staples like Johnny Burnett, Gene Autry and Patsy Cline. "They just have to do what's true to them, they don't care if it's something that's gonna make them a lot of money or make them famous or whatever."
The songs on Just a Shot of Shine follow that template, mostly midtempo foot-stompers about drinking ("I Don't Want to Think, I Want to Drink," "April Fool's Day at Graceland"), leaving your man ("Black Not Blue"), hooliganizing ("Born to Raise Hell") and other hobbies ("Smokin' Mary Jane").
Playing in the living room, pumped through impressive amplifiers lent to them by Shannon's employer, Genz Benz, the trio is animated far beyond what you hear on the CD. Wolf's picking is nothing short of awe-inspiring, especially considering his short tenure with the band. Heather Rae and Shannon punctuate the hoedown with hollers of "yee-ha" and stomps, and every song ends with them laughing, heads leaned toward one another. Shannon's upright bass provides the percussion as well as the low tones, and he and Heather Rae have their vocal harmonies down perfectly -- I guess nearly six years of marriage and eight years of playing together will do that. They even do a hilarious rendition of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," landing this particular living room concert on my short list of all-time favorites.
It's a far cry from the days half a lifetime ago when Shannon sported a Mohawk to his parents' dismay. These days, Shannon says, "I know my parents love it. They still can't believe I'm doing what I'm doing."