If you've been keeping up with the country music coming out of Nashville, stumbled upon one of the industry's several televised awards shows, or even if you've just glanced at the cover of Country Weekly in the grocery store checkout line, you've noticed that most of today's male country stars look and sound a lot alike. You've got the standard muscle-bound and goateed rough-and-tumbler (Trace Adkins/Toby Keith) and the clean-cut, skinny jean guys who look like rock 'n' roll models (Keith Urban/Jason Aldean). Oh, and every once in a while a wild card like long-haired, biker-bearded neo-outlaw badass Jamey Johnson slips by the Nashville image consultants.
Then Tolleson-bred singer/songwriter Robert Perez, frontman for local country shitkickers Junction 10, walks into Tempe's Yucca Tap Room. He's carrying a guitar case on a Tuesday night ("I always carry a guitar with me wherever I go") and is, by country standards, one of the real wild cards.
"I'm 6-foot-4, 450 pounds with a Misfits tattoo on my arm," says Perez with a chuckle. "I think it probably jars people, you know?"
Perez's visage may not fit the Nashville mold, but he's among the best country singers west of the Rio Grande. He has a voice that any of the current hunks in hats riding the country charts would kill for: a keening, tequila-soaked tenor equally adept at tear-in-your-beer laments and dusty, rowdy, honky-tonkin' two-steppers that have come to define the best songs in the burgeoning local country scene.
"Friends, family, they're like, 'That voice comes out of you?'" Perez says. "Singing country music is not easy. There are a lot of people who have tried to do it for a lot of years. I listened to [country singers] and I could sing it. It happened just like that, and I am very lucky for that."
And about that Misfits tattoo? The seminal Jersey horror punkers' logo (a sparse, haunted skull) gracing the inside of Perez's right forearm makes it clear you're not chatting with Brad Paisley or Josh Turner. Then again, Paisley and Turner undoubtedly did not grow up like Perez did, playing bass in death metal bands and blasting Slayer, The Misfits, and Sepultura from his car speakers during the day and singing along to Merle Haggard while working nights on a loading dock at a grocery store. It's a bipolar dichotomy to most, but Perez insists it's not that far of a stretch between metal and country.
"As a confused teenager, I was drawn to more of the heavier, aggressive music, and then as I matured and got older, I'd always listened to country music," Perez says, noting such late-'80s and early-'90s new traditionalists as Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Randy Travis as original influences. "I even got some of my metal friends, the guys I played in bands with, into country music — one of them even got really heavy into George Jones. When I told them I was going to put a country band together they said, 'Go for it. You're good at it.'"
Perez' first stab at a playing in a country band, I-10 West, came together five years ago when a music promoter friend approached the singer about opening a show at the bygone Coyote Hill in west Glendale.
"He always thought I should be singing country, but when he came to me about this show, I told him all I had was a metal band," Perez says. "He told me he wanted a country band and I had two months notice and would I do it? So I kind of put the heavy metal and the death metal on the back burner and I started this country band out of nowhere. The first show was back when Uncle Kracker first started to go country, and the second show we played was with Shooter Jennings on New Year's Eve 2006. You know, I was just getting started as a songwriter and a country singer, and those shows were just way too big for our britches at the time."
When the direction of I-10 West began leaning more toward the punk side of the band's country/punk mash-up, the singer went back to the drawing board.
"Musically, people grow apart, and I wanted to go more traditional, more of a honky-tonk route," Perez says. "I wanted a nice danceable groove to drinking songs, songs about the human condition and the refusal to learn your lesson, and those are the types of songs I've always written."
Armed with a batch of stellar, self-penned honky-tonkers, Perez hooked up with guitarist Ray Lawrence Jr. and began attending a country music open mic night at the Sage and Sand, a country dive situated across the street from Luke Air Force Base. The night was hosted by Chuck Pritchard.
"Chuck stayed late to see Ray and I play one night and I said, 'I have a bass and a little amp in the back of my Suburban if you want to sit in,' and he said, 'Shit, yeah,'" Perez says. "By the end of the 40 minutes we played together it's like, 'Hey, man, you wanna be in a band?'"
Initially billed as Suicide Driver, Perez saw a revolving door of musicians pass through the band (with Lawrence Jr., who now plays solo shows around the Valley, leaving to go back to driving a truck) until settling on its current lineup of Perez on guitar and vocals, bassist Pritchard, drummer Ryan Rice, and Telecaster master David Eras on guitar. Eventually changing their name to the more country-friendly Junction 10, the band has firmly ensconced itself as a leader in the flowering local country scene, which Perez calls country music's "best kept secret."
"It's one of the purest forms of music I've heard in a long time," Perez says of Arizona country's stripped-down, back-to-basics Bakersfield-esque, hard-country approach. "I am drawn to a lot of the bands here in the Valley, not just as musicians, but they are really great people and I consider all of them as friends. It's a very close-knit community. The guy you saw onstage on Saturday is the guy you talked to on the phone on Friday, and that's the coolest thing."
Citing favorites such as iconic Valley twang kings Flathead, Hashknife Outfit, Jimmy Pines, Barefoot and Pregnant, Charlie Shooter Band, Pat Roberts and The Heymakers, and Jim Bachmann and The Day Drinkers, Perez is also quick to give credit to DJ Dana and her weekly Valley Fever Sundays at Yucca Tap Room for giving the Arizona country movement an epicenter.
"She's turned Valley Fever into the place where we all congregate, and on any given night, you'd better believe there's at least 20 percent musicians in the crowd," Perez says. "So you'd better bring your 'A' game and you'd better be playing good that night."
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Junction 10 will release their debut disc, Walkin' Sideways, in November. Perez says he couldn't care less whether Junction 10 ever lands a video on CMT, appears at the CMAs, or graces the cover of Country Weekly. Describing Nashville as a plastic atmosphere ("I mean, compared to what these guys are doing now," Perez says, "Garth Brooks is a friggin' saint. It's like, 'He wasn't so bad!'") Perez is more than content with Junction 10's lofty standing in the local movement.
"I've got a day job. I'm doing pretty good. I've got a roof over my head and gas in the tank," Perez says. "But this music thing I do, I do it because I love it. I do it because I want to contribute something that I think is pure out there. If I can sell a few records — if a few people know who I am — great. If that means I have that many more friends in the world, that's great. I love doing what we do."
Sat., Oct. 30, 8 p.m., 2010