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."