Isn't science remarkable? You can drop a laser beam on a silver disc and be musically transported back to some circa-1958 VA hall, slow dancing to the sound of a smoky-voiced gal accompanied only by her upright bass, some lonesome pedal steel and some minimal snare brushwork, all wrapped up in tube-amp reverb. "Hey sailor, I miss you," she coos at the start of "Veil of Tears." Amazingly, it's not some lost Skeeter Davis outtake.
Track two is just as seductive, a modern-sounding outlaw ballad called "Get Out of Tucson," sung in a plaintive voice and accompanied by a nylon stringed guitar. Then we're back to 1958 again, and the smoky-voiced gal and her skeleton crew are serving up some upbeat Western boogie.
What the hell have they got going here -- the country music equivalent of Double Fantasy or some weirdly cribbed together Owen Bradley tribute album?
No, it's a CD that was originally going to be called Dead Reckoning -- a ragtag collection of solo recordings by Ruth Wilson, former bassist of the rockabilly trio Flathead, and Mike Hebert, singer/songwriter/guitarist for retro-swing band Kings of Pleasure -- that somehow is all over the map, but at least it's a country map.
Some of Hebert's songs sound like they were siphoned from an entirely different project, while Wilson's songs reflect the pared-down duo's shows they've been performing in Tucson and Phoenix -- they sound like they were committed to tape in Bradley's Barn in Nashville a long time ago. Already there's talk of jockeying the song selection to include some newer material, as Wilson's songs date from around 2000 (before she took a long layoff from music), but hopefully this disc will retain its fascinating schizoid-country sound in the mastering stage.
And the name Dead Reckoning is already in heavy use, so the duo will probably just go by Ruth Wilson and Mike Hebert. Or how about Wilson and Hebert, like Brooks & Dunn? Both bristle at the suggestion. Wilson seems pretty disgusted with even sharing the same last name as that party-crashing Gretchen chick.
"We came together out of a mutual admiration for retro-country," says Hebert, who saw Wilson doing one of her solo gigs and uttered the words she'd been longing to hear since she was kicked out of the local roots trio Flathead: "Do you want to be in a band?" Wilson had just briefly been in an all-girl band called the Weaker Sex (the name was too good to pass up), but it only lasted three gigs. Most of her band time has been clocked with Flathead, which still plays its now "Ruth-less" brand of rockabilly. You can chalk up the fact that Wilson remembers the exact dates of her first and last Flathead shows (February 6, 1992, and April 13, 1997) to her being a woman, being bitter or being emancipated. It's likely a combination of the three.
As her speech accelerates, I realize that in all the years of seeing her in Flathead, I've never once heard her speak. "In that band, I played electric and I chewed gum and never said a word onstage," Wilson says, laughing. "Never sang, never made even a happy birthday announcement. Nothing." Her silence offstage reinforced the common belief that she left the band of her own accord, which was Flathead's official line to the local press.
"They claimed that I chose to leave the band to pursue a solo career in Los Angeles, which was not true. I did go to L.A. to pursue a drinking career," she cackles, "which was a disaster! The good thing that came out of falling off the wagon and getting kicked out of Flathead was learning to play upright bass and singing. After getting back on the wagon, I was no longer afraid to sing.
"Before that, I had an opportunity to play with Mike Ness' solo project, but I disappeared during the recording session and ended up in Mexico City. And then we had some stern talking for about an hour on how I should probably not drink. Ness was really into AA. I went 10 years without falling off the wagon, and if anyone ever told me I was powerless and that I had to give credit to a doorknob or something, I don't think it would've worked."
Wilson first crossed paths with Hebert when Kings of Pleasure were touring the swing dancing circuit and she was setting up swing dance lessons across the street from the Rhythm Room. For 18 years, Hebert has supported his family through music, and the swing dancing years were lucrative ones. He formed his own record label, Plez Records, and released three Kings of Pleasure CDs before the craze died down.
"The band's still going on a side-band kind of basis," says Hebert. "It kind of dissolved into a band that plays casinos and corporate gigs. There are still [swing dancing] scenes around with diehards, but it was kind of stifling from a creative songwriting point -- to reinvent that sound over and over."
Hebert got Wilson involved with music again, taught her Kings of Pleasure material, and introduced her to the world of private gigs. "There's a way to do them," says Hebert. "You make great money, it doesn't take very long, and you learn ÔBeyond the Sea.' If they don't clap, you can't take it personally."
The last few years have been lost ones musically, as Wilson became a living footnote in former Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood's ongoing struggles. "I got involved with his life because I was so worried about his well-being. The years Cris and I lived together, from 2000 to earlier this year, I just didn't play at all. I kind of disappeared for a while," Wilson says.
Sadly, Kirkwood's return to playing music is taking a lot longer, but Wilson's gigging with his amps and his blessing. Plans are afoot for Wilson and Hebert to expand their band, try getting a show for South by Southwest, and possibly tour. Unfortunately, there isn't a circuit for a country band to play on a small regional level.
"Country bars always have country cover bands," says Hebert. "Even a band like Flathead that plays a form of country music, like rig rock, cannot play the country bars."
"In Flathead, we supported ourselves playing bars on Mill Avenue," says Wilson. "I quit my day job at Mood Swings where I was a manicurist."
She looks down at her bass-callused hands. "I still have my license. It's there to fall back on," she says, laughing. "But it's too late. I've already fallen."
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