Between Texola (in the west) and Roland (in the east) run 330 miles of the worst road anywhere in the United States, and they run straight through the heart of Oklahoma.
Driving Interstate 40 through the Sooner State is like navigating a bicycle down a flight of concrete steps. Blacktop patches lift the wheels abruptly; potholes and fissures in the pavement drop them with a sickening thump. Along both sides of the road, twisted curls of shredded tire rubber festoon the landscape, a subtle warning that somehow escapes you until you hear that whomp beneath your own undercarriage, and look into the rear-view to see parts and pieces of your own radials scattering in your wake.
In almost the exact center of this stretch of bad road is Oklahoma City, whence once emerged the Flaming Lips. And 20 miles south of that, down I-35, is the city of Norman -- home to the University of Oklahoma, the Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band, and a couple of gentlemen musicians currently known as the Hosty Duo, who ought to be a lot more famous than they are.
Mike Hosty and Mike Byars are familiar with that stretch of road; in half a decade, they've probably played every city, town, burg, hamlet and village in Oklahoma proper.
But Norman . . . Norman is home.
"What can you say about Norman?" muses Mike Hosty, a guitarist and all-around instrumentalist with more chops than a hog-rendering plant. "It's a university town . . . it's the third largest city in Oklahoma, but it's still a small town. It's just big enough that we've got an Arby's and a McDonald's. But it's just small enough that you know everybody. You'll ride around and see Barry Switzer out on his Harley, picking up chicks. Oh, yeah; drunk as hell."
And Lord, the ambiance. "We tend to play out at the places that have electricity," Hosty says of Norman's live music outlets. "We try to shy away from some of the blue-star, dirt-floor venues. And the bingo parlors, the Indian casinos . . . those places are a little too glamorous. But there are a lot of places out here that aren't really bars, they're saloons. At any moment, at the drop of a hat, a fight breaks out. You'll hear the piano going rink-a-tink-tinky-tink, rink-tink-tink and everybody yelling, 'Kill him, Billy!' Except for the one guy who's yelling 'Metallica!'"
Hosty is, in fact, not only a fairly high-profile resident of Norman, he's also something of a civic booster. Tapped by Norman's Pop magazine for a "Resolutions and Predictions" contribution in December 1999 -- alongside sports and media figures, civic and business leaders -- he openly prodded the city fathers to make a greater investment in music education programs and facilities for area public schools. He's an avid supporter (to put it lightly) of the Oklahoma State Fair, where he claims to "eat more corn dogs, fair food and funnel cakes than a third-grade schoolteacher on a field trip." At hometown shows, he opens a song about the Cleveland County Jail by boasting that "We [Cleveland County] got the best county fair, best sewer system, best schools and most decapitations!"
Plus, he and percussionist Byars bring their skewed merger of country guitar, beat samples and heavy soul-funk -- what Hosty refers to as "hic-hop" -- to the locals on a regular basis.
Undoubtedly all this hometown boosterism is what the Daughters of the American Revolution had in mind by "being a good citizen." And by all accounts, the city loves the Hosty Duo right back; regardless of the venue, their performances are sold-out events at which the beer runs free, the floor gets dirty, and even the most two-left-feeted hombre somehow gets persuaded to shake it good one time.
Strictly speaking, however, until recently Norman's love went out to the Hosty Trio; vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wiser left the group in the summer of 2000.
The Hosty Trio began as something of a patchwork project. Guitarist Mike Hosty had been playing in the recently defunct power-rock trio Heater. Drummer Mike Byars (with whom Hosty had once played in a band called The Silvertones) knew a guy, a schoolteacher by profession, who had just bought himself an organ. The three lived within two blocks of each other; Byars suggested they all get together and jam.
Arguably, it was Chris Wiser's Hammond B-3 organ that lent the Hosty Trio its unique sound, in that early incarnation. Sparse and accomplished, with one ear firmly cocked toward early '70s Atco/Atlantic soul, Wiser's playing lifted Hosty's already original funk-soul workouts from the realm of homage to the level of true soul. With its dead-on horn arrangement, "Motion," from their first album Volume (1996), could slip unnoticed into the track listing of Rhino's Soul Hits of the '70s: Didn't It Blow Your Mind? series. Occasionally, as on the song "Bus Stop," also from Volume, the vibe was so correct that the song might've been an overlooked nugget from the Stax vaults, circa 1974.
(Oh, yeah: The albums. To date, there have been three semi-official full-length releases: Volume, 1997's Gusto and 1998's 3, all as the Hosty Trio, and all self-released; the first duo sets are forthcoming. The albums are available at shows, of course, but they're also available through www.hosty.com, an information hub that lists upcoming performances, archives a selection of press clippings, and boasts a collection of Hosty's "Tales From the Road," an as-it-happened tour journal of warm good humor and inarguable literary merit. Happily, in addition to being a solid axman, Hosty's an excellent writer; his online tour journals are recommended to musicians and fans of good prose alike.)
The Hosty Trio, in its original form, was a sewn-up-tight combo that swung freely from funk to blues to sweet soul, with remarkable alacrity and an unerring ear. They were tapped to play shows with everyone from blues legend R.L. Burnside to surf-guitar honcho Dick Dale, and managed to win wowed respect from those luminaries and others who blew through town. Unequivocally a locals' favorite, the Trio laid down the dirty boogie for Norman's bar scene.
But the music drew from more directions than Detroit and the Delta. To wit: Just before Wiser's departure, the trio put out a beautiful bastard of an album called One Too Heavy, under the bogus moniker "10 Pound Hammer."
"Charles Bronson inspired most of that album," reports Hosty. "We'd played a lot of country stuff for years. We had all these country songs in our repertoire -- we still have a bunch -- and we decided to put some on one album and make it kind of a really old, lo-fi recording . . . with gunfighter ballads, and a porno Western trumpet line, and a bunch of other things. Just make it kind of a silly album like you'd find in a bin at a truck stop. We're all fans of the truck stop tape genre, so that was our goal. [One Too Heavy] aspires to be $3.99, on Flying J Records."
One Too Heavy -- which didn't fool anybody, particularly with that "The Hosty Trio Presents" banner on its cover -- is a funny record; boasting songs like "Truck Stop Shower Stall" and the Charlie Daniels-esque story-song "Cleveland County Cage," it couldn't be anything else. But it also happens to be goddamn wonderful Nashville country, largely in the vein of the Buckaroos or the Jordanaires. It's a tour de force along the lines of Ween's 12 Golden Country Greats, but without the hipper-than-thou overtones (especially on the south-of-the-border epic "Que Haya": "The smell of tequila on my breath/And refried beans upon my chest/And lovely Maria").
Moreover, where Ween hired Nashville session musicians to fill out the sound, the Trio played all their own instruments, from keyboards to pedal steel guitar. And they nailed it.
Those familiar with the Hosty Trio's work inevitably wonder how the sound has changed, as a result of the trimming down. "There's still some of the funk, blues, soul sound, but it's a lot different now. We like to call it 'hic-hop,'" says Hosty. "Just a couple of hicks trying to play funk and rhythm and blues."
Recent months have seen the duo take a slight breather from recording, in part as a result of a broken hip that laid Byars up for the first half of 2001. Hosty thereafter took to the road on the strength of a solo set, a one-man-band circuit on which he played bass with foot pedals.
"When [Byars] came back, we relearned everything all over again," he says. "He uses a lot of drum samples and loops, and the music is a little edgier than it was before, less jam-oriented. A little rawer. It's tougher."
Last year's ambitiously titled Un Hombre Mallo [sic]: A Mike Hosty Anthology, which collects tracks from the Trio's previous releases as well as new versions and solo cuts, is the most recent release. Given the productivity and manic pace of the past five years, this lull might look like a seventh-inning stretch, but the pace and frequency of live shows have remained constant.
"If anything, we've played more, and farther away from Oklahoma, in the past year than we ever did as a trio," reports Hosty. An extended tour with Roger Cline and the Peacemakers expanded their fan base to the Southern and Western U.S., while one memorable performance with R.L. Burnside saw Hosty and Byars backing the venerable bluesman as he delivered an impromptu rap.
"Yeah, 'hic-hop,'" says Hosty again. "And I guarantee you, somebody's going to steal that term. It'll probably be some tank-top-shirted rapper from South Carolina on MTV. But when you see him, you just remember ol' Hosty."
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