Celebrities, smoke and sweat clog the Hole in the Wall, a tiny bar just up the road from the legendary Antone's in Austin, Texas. The Cowbillys, whose members hail from places like Tempe and South Phoenix, are playing the most important gig of their lives--an upwardly mobile showcase at a record industry shmoozefest called South by Southwest. The Hole in the Wall is the kind of dive they should thrive in: a couple hundred honky-tonkers press against one another, ignoring the Notre Dame-Virginia game on the tube above the bar, wanting to be rocked. Major-label roots musicians like Nanci Griffith and Kelly Willis are in the crowd somewhere. So are execs from record companies like Polygram. So is Smitty's pitchgal Jan D'Atri. She's smiling.
Singer Ronnie Glover picks a point midway through the set to get as hip as anything this crowd's ever seen.
"This song is for Jan D'Atri's boots," Glover grins. "It's also dedicated to our favorite cowgirl, Nancy Sinatra."
The Cowbillys proceed to kick out Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" exactly like you wouldn't expect. The 'billys' "Boots" is neither country, nor rockabilly, nor kitsch. Instead, the rad rockers turn the song into what it was supposed to be in the first place: an in-the-garage, grunged-up beer-bottle breaker.
The crowd hangs onto its Shiner Bock brewskis, but hoots and hollers its way through the next song, a medley of "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" and "Apache." It's an instrumental Glover introduces with "Sing along if you know the words, 'cause we're not going to." Then he steps aside while Tommy Oster(izer) leads the group on what Glover calls "Egyptian guitar" through a psychedelic country-jazz epic that's as gloriously self-indulgent as it is refreshing. (Oster's instrument got its name after Egyptian officials searched some circuitry for a bomb while the Cowbillys were gigging at the Cairo Marriott last year.) By the end of the workout, Tommy O. is the answer to the question, What if Jimi Hendrix had been born in Nashville?
Then there's Bruce Hamblin (nickname "Ramblin'"), the crowd fave. Dressed in vintage thrift-store duds--black pants with red piping, silver-tipped shitkickers--Hamblin's a Fifties rockabilly idol on stand-up bass. He swigs down Shiner, sends the Hole back a few decades with Little Richard's "Rip It Up," catches a twinkle in his eye for Hank Sr.'s "Ramblin' Man" and locks up with drummer Ladd Denison to jam the band into a higher gear on "Rockin' Baby."
Unfortunately, no one requests Ray Wiley Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall Red Neck Mother," with which the 'billys like to perplex dancers by throwing in a few bars of reggae.
By the end of the set, the Cowbillys have fused their assorted influences into one killer sound. Psychedelia, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, country--they're all there, but they've been layered, smoothed and welded into a form that grooves on the elusive spaces between genrefication. It's only when the Cowbillys don't put the acid in their beer that they fall flat." The other letdown is the complete absence of Cowbilly originals. But that doesn't seem to bother at least one major-label suit, a Polygram rep who hands Glover a card as he leans down to unplug his acoustic.
The band heads outside and the congrats start. Hamblin's dragged his bass onto the sidewalk, and a couple of eight-year-old girls think he's Elvis. He signs autographs while Glover chats with rising star Willis.
Glover's family--father Ray, mother Margaret, and brother Mike--are here from Texas locales like Burleson and Everman. They've driven 200 miles to get a look at Ronnie, but then, Mike's also driven to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to see him play. This time, though, Mike has shown up wearing a brace around his middle. "My back's broke," he says. "Other than that, I'm fine."
So is Jan D'Atri, who's sporting a new pair of black pointy-toes with white tips. She's analyzing. "I love these guys," smiles the vacationing supermarket spokeswoman. "I think they're solid, too. You hear that word `synergy' a lot. I think they're tight, don't you? I was udderly moooooed."
THE COWBILLYS ARE to Phoenix what up-yours acts like Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang, and the Kentucky Headhunters are to Nashville. In a town where just about everyone else is snoring their way up and down the Top 40, the 'billys have studiously steered their way around pop-country since they formed almost three years ago.
The Austin scene, full of iconoclasts like Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker, serves as a reminder and inspiration to Glover that you can get somewhere--if not the Top 40--by sticking close to your influences, not to the charts.
"I've seen so many musicians here who spend so much time on their direction," Glover says over breakfast at Trudy's, a restaurant across the street from the Hole in the Wall. "They throw it out to the public as they see it. They take that risk." As a baby 'billy at age 17 in 1972, Ronnie Glover found himself wondering about country music's direction. A weed named Chet Atkins was spreading his noxious, vaporless guitar sound throughout Music City. "Nashville went to overproduced string-sounding stuff," remembers Glover, whose swept-back hair and gray eyes make him look as much like a crafty A&R veep as a musician. "It was the difference between a violin and a fiddle. All of a sudden, country music had strings instead of strangs."
Back then, Glover's favorite group was the Moody Blues. "I wasn't listening to much country. I was listening to Jo Jo Gunne and Spirit, the Who, Humble Pie, King Crimson. On the other hand, I would play the hell out of my Merle Haggard records."
So after checking out the Moody Blues in Dallas, Glover got in his car the same night and drove to Abbott to see Willie Nelson. There the 'billy was born. Nelson had decided to throw a bash with the kind of friends who might show up at Farm Aid these days. Country's new generation--Kenneth Threadgill, Asleep at the Wheel, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Jeff Walker--was there. "I was a changed man after that. . . . Not only did I like the music, but it was country music with a little twist. The main thing was people my age were going nuts over this stuff."
Old songs in new ways--the Seventies progressive-country movement was a revelation to Glover. "You could cry in your beer," Glover says, and psychedelically jam at the same time.
While Glover was rediscovering that country could be cool and starting his first band, the Hare Krishna Cowboys, Tommy Oster was finding his own ways to make the medium rock. The guitarist honed his licks in Syracuse, New York, by listening to early electric heroes like Hank Marvin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck, but playing in a country band. "Actually, all those influences would suggest I would be in a rock 'n' roll band," says Oster, who also played on a few Gene Pitney records back then. "The money was steady in a country band. The rock 'n' roll market is real fickle."
Eventually, Oster took what he calls his Jerry Jeff Beck sound out to Wyoming and met Glover in Jackson Hole in 1978. After the two jammed, Oster decided to move to Phoenix and join Glover's band at the time, Yesterday's Wine. The guitarist threw up from the heat the minute he and Glover pulled into town, and Yesterday's Wine broke up two months later.
But Glover helped start the long-lived, on-the-brink-of-success Two Week Notice Band in 1979. That band, Glover says, "had an uncanny knack for finding a tune, and after it was a signature tune for us, someone would record it and it would turn into a hit." Two Week Notice would comb the underground for songs like Guy Clark's "Heartbroke" and Rodney Crowell's "Leaving Louisiana in Broad Daylight," only to hear Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris sing them on the radio.
Those songs were hints of the looming new-traditionalist wave that would send youngsters like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis to Nashville. "Three to four years before Dwight Yoakam hit the scene, I had the idea of having a band that could play old country classics and songs of that sound," Glover remembers. When Yoakam did land his Warner Bros. deal, Glover's reaction was "Damn, I missed it."
But when the core of Two Week Notice eventually began drifting away to other realms of country, Glover got another chance to pick up Yoakam's trail.
It turned out that another popular Valley band, the rockabillyin' Varmits, was dissolving at about the same time. Their upright bass player, Bruce Hamblin, had jammed with Glover, and the two eventually started talking about joining up. "I was leaning toward country," says Hamblin, a rockabilly fiend who even spent a few months with Bill Haley's Comets several years ago. "I'm just a hick anyway."
Glover says he and the bassist held a few late-night listening sessions at Hamblin's house and put together the format for a new band. "It was a definite concept when we started it," Glover says. (The Cowbillys tend to use the word "concept" to describe the band more often than an A&R honcho might.) "A head-on collision of classic country and vintage rockabilly.
"This was going to be a country band that could jump and run, and the instrumentation was authentic all the way down the line--an old Fender lead guitar, acoustic guitar, upright bass and sparse drums."
The core of today's Cowbillys--Glover, Hamblin, and Oster--named itself after a combo of its members' musical staples. Immediately, the new band members began educating each other on their influences. For instance, when a request for "La Bamba" stumped the rest of the Cowbillys on their first gig, Hamblin says he dug out his early-rock encyclopedia and saved the band's butt.
Today, the Cowbillys split the spotlight with little regard for egos. And what could turn into a three-way stylistic tug of war doesn't. Glover isn't shy about wailing out Webb Pierce's "Teenage Boogie," nor is Hamblin averse to crooning "Ramblin' Man." Oster is a kind of most valuable utility player, picking out leads from all over pop music and amusing himself with effects that sound like dive-bombers, car horns, fire engines and irate cows. Glover calls it "Zen guitar."
"I enjoy being the only lead instrument in the band," Oster says. "Only I'm not. Bruce is a lead instrument. He does bass solos."
Denison's job is to drive while the forward line steers. Like Oster, Denison, who joined the band two months ago, has to remind himself that the Cowbillys don't really have a band leader. "I don't try to overplay. Bruce, the way he plays bass, it's a percussion instrument. If I overplayed, I would be stepping on him. Besides, he's the best one in the band. . . . Ronnie's the best one in the band. Tommy O.'s the best one in the band. I guess I'm the only drummer in the band."
SOMETHING'S BEEN GNAWING at the Cowbillys lately. The band works six to eight nights a week, which puts bread on the table . . . but not original songs in the sets.
"We haven't dedicated the time or found the time to write together," Glover admits. "I can't blame this whole thing entirely on the schedule. Once you're working that way, it's easy to take any time you have to relax, to kick back, maybe even watch the Andy Griffith program during the day instead of songwriting and not feel guilty about it."
"When you're working six nights a week, that one night you have off, you don't even want to listen to music," says Hamblin, adding that he's "a bit frustrated about it.
"I've got originals and it's kind of disappointing not to be performing 'em. Some nights we'll play really great, and I'll say, `This is the best I ever played that song.' But that's it. It's in the wind. Even if we had a hit with somebody else's song, it wouldn't be that self-gratifying. It would be a lot better to have a hit with one of our own."
Glover asserts, though, that the Cowbillys have more to offer than the typical country cover band. "Probably 50 to 75 percent of the material we do now, the cover songs, is material the audience has probably never heard anyway. We don't spend our time by the radio learning each month's Top 10." In some parts, the Cowbillys have been embraced on the basis of nothing but their covers. KNON-FM, a community radio station in Dallas, put the group's demo, Meat . . . the Cowbillys, at the top of its country chart in January 1989.
Glover claims he, Hamblin, and Oster have about three dozen songs between them, but that the band's work schedule has left them little time to arrange them. The South by Southwest festival, though, gave Glover a kick in the butt, he says. "We're all a little tired of not putting out the extra hours and the extra work to get over the edge, and I think it's gonna be a combined effort to push ourselves over. I don't think Vince Lombardi could've motivated us any better."
The dearth of originals isn't the only barrier in the Cowbillys' path to Nashville, though. Ronnie Glover is 35, Ladd Denison 35, Bruce Hamblin 39, and Tommy O. "older than dirt," in Glover's words. So far, major labels have preferred that their new-traditionalists be young rock stars, too, along the lines of Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis.
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Still, Glover is optimistic: "There's a couple of different ways to look at it. One being, I think we'd be a safe bet for a record company, 'cause they wouldn't have to ride herd on us. Second, look at K.T. Oslin. She's no spring chicken. None of us will ever be sex symbols or in Teen Beat, so they'll have to throw that angle out entirely. What it means in the big picture is we have less time than other people, so we have to work harder. Besides, 35 to 40 isn't as old as it used to be."
By virtue of their classic country-billy format alone, the Cowbillys have a chance to make the new-traditionalist scene, but Glover insists that he's an idealist, not an opportunist. "I don't feel that this new-traditionalist thing with a rockabilly influence or rockabilly thing with a country influence is any great new concept. I don't think it's a faddish thing. I hope it never becomes that way, or I don't want any part of it."
That Glover is virtually starting his musical career over at 35 doesn't bother him. This time the 'billy boss has a philosophy.
"I feel secure in the unknown, where in the past, I haven't. I've seen so many good things that haven't worked, and so many things that I don't feel are that good, work. "The reason I've been able to do this for so long and keep going without going under--and without getting larger--is that music has to be more fun than work. That sounds like a Boy Scout answer or a white-bread answer, but it's true. "We laid down two bylaws when we started the Cowbillys--have fun, and `Proud Mary' is a $500 request. And we've yet to play `Proud Mary.'" Tommy O. is the answer to the question, What if Jimi Hendrix had been born in Nashville?