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WAITIN' ON NASHVILLETHE MARK LUCAS BAND IS READY--JUST SHOW IT WHERE TO SIGN

The way Mark Lucas figures it, if you cast your line often enough, you're bound to catch something. Big-show success for his namesake country honky-tonk band is, therefore, merely a matter of catching the right Music City ear. Frequent forays into deepest, darkest Nashville are a major part of the strategy.

"We're prepared to showcase now," drawls the Arkansas-born, Texas-raised Lucas, stretching out his smooth baritone. "Getting the right connections is a tough trick, but we're just not gonna give up. We'll get there."

Lucas and his band are sprawled around an elderly wooden table, stage left at the Corral in Mesa. All are veterans of the business: string master Jay Dee Hoag, bassist Rick Pacella, drummer "Hollywood" Joe Yaw and compact guitarist/lead singer Lucas. It's Saturday night, about an hour before the band will take the stage for its initial set. Already, the up-front tables adjacent to the huge bar's ample dance floor have filled up with quartets of gussied-up women and dance-feverish couples. In the parking lot out front, two cowboys--one older and burly, the other a relative pup--in full western-dressy regalia lean against a full-size American truck. The older 'poke reaches into the truck's cab and pulls out a lasso. He proceeds to demonstrate its use. In no time, a couple of women in oh-so-tight Wranglers sidle up to them.

There's no need, however, to rope anybody into the warm and rustic confines of the Corral. The Mark Lucas Band has been the house act at this popular watering hole for better than a year now, and the establishment does not want for paying customers. In fact, Lucas' group has garnered a devoted following, including band favorite Peggy Rubach, the mayor of Mesa.

So the Corral loves the Mark Lucas Band, and vice versa. But the big prize--that major-label contractual agreement--is still out there, and the band wants it bad.

"The more people you know the better," says Rick Pacella, echoing Lucas' statement that the band is on a collision course with success. "Of course, we're learning that you can know just about everybody and it doesn't mean a thing." That's not despair in the Mesa native's voice, but a touch of amused confidence. None of the country group's members has a day job. To a man, this band is certain that penetrating Nashville's bubble-popping pine curtain is a matter of when, not if.

In the interim, the Mark Lucas Band plays a slick mixture of chaw-swallowing, two-step, cry-in-yer-beer country classics and rich, radio-friendly originals both at the Corral and when opening for big-time acts like John Anderson and Lacy J. Dalton at other Valley dance halls. Its repertoire includes tunes by Steve Earle, Vern Gosdin, Dean Dillon, Marty Stuart, Hank Jr.--the whole gamut of favorites.

The band takes risks, too: Witness a recent Jay Dee Hoag-led electrified rendition of "Sweet Dreams," the venerated Patsy Cline anthem. A lesser band would've been put on a boat to Elba or a bus to Eloy.

This foursome has been together in its present form for just about a year and a half, but all of the members consider this musical confederacy the best they've been associated with. Mark Lucas has been in a number of bands around town, but he doesn't care much about mentioning them. "This is the whole thing right now," he says simply.

"Hollywood" Joe Yaw has been with Lucas for around three years, but prior to that he toured with various national acts. Rick Pacella, who feels as comfortable twisting knobs in a studio as he does helping out with the rhythm section onstage, is a former member of First Class, the house band at Jaramillo's in Mesa.

But it's Jay Dee Hoag who carries the band's most impressive resume. In the early Eighties, the guitarist picked for famed instrumental group the Ventures, and he's provided lead strings for a bevy of other fair-to-middlin' Nashville acts, including R.C. Bannon and Louise Mandrell. Yet his three-year, mid-Seventies stint with Texas crooner Marty Robbins remains, up to now, the most significant of his career.

The wisecracking Hoag ("Yeah, I played with Louise Mandrell; I also did some gigs with her") speaks with unabashed reverence of the late Robbins, who died of a heart attack in 1982. Robbins had a well-known passion for racing stock cars, "but few people outside the sport knew that Marty never took the money he won from racing," Hoag remembers. "The year he won at Talladega [Alabama], he gave the money to the second-place finisher. `It's their living,' he said." Hoag is proud that he wrote the last song ever recorded by Robbins, "Devil in a Cowboy Hat."

Still, such solemn reverie is a departure from the band norm. Both on- and off-stage, the members exhibit an organic sense of humor ranging from self-deprecating to bawdy. Jay Dee Hoag often takes the point in the comedic assault, and as often as not "Hollywood" Joe Yaw--who usually starts laughing at the sound of the first consonant--is involved in the punch line.

"You know, it sounds pretty stupid, but we just flat-out get along," Yaw says earnestly. "I mean, we've had our ups and downs."

"But we're keeping Joe anyhow," Hoag interjects with a straight face.
"It's true," adds Rick Pacella. "Most bands do have three good musicians and a drummer."

"That's right," Hoag agrees. "Joe plays in the key of L. You know, he plays like L."

Mark Lucas leans back in his chair, looking over his eyeglasses, listening to the exchange with a faint expression of amusement. Yaw, of course, is literally slapping his jeaned knees with laughter.

This kind of irreverence goes on during the show, as well. Just what do musicians talk about during those serious, midchops conferences and solemn-looking asides while playing?

Lucas leans forward. "Well, once Jay Dee had just finished an incredible break and the crowd was going wild. So I moved over to him and said, `Geez, Jay Dee, that was extremely average.' He was looking down at the stage floor like his feelings were hurt. `Damn,' he said, `my pants are too long.'"

Just as keeping loose is part of the grand design, band harmony is furthered by an egalitarian distribution of spotlight time. Although Lucas handles the bulk of the singing chores, Pacella gets his fair share. Even Hoag and Yaw get their turn at the main mic.

Yet for all this musical democracy, there is complete consensus as to who runs the Mark Lucas Band.

"We just have one leader," says Yaw, "and that's Mark Lucas." Hoag and Pacella nod vigorously.

"Mark is the leader," Hoag agrees. "That way there's just one person to take all the blame. Actually, if Mark doesn't come up with some new contacts, I might just have to take that day job. Maybe I'll be a fighter pilot."

In fact, the Mark Lucas Band will have just completed a week off as this story goes to press. During that time, the indefatigable Lucas and Blue Spur Music studio head honcho Terry Olson will have embarked on yet another reconnaissance mission to Music Row, armed with their second tape. The band's first effort still sells briskly at the Corral, thanks in large part to the song "Trashy Women," a bona fide hit locally, and, according to Lucas, "still one of the most requested songs on local radio."

This new tape, fresh out of the Blue Spur booths, includes Hoag's "Devil in a Cowboy Hat," along with some Hoag and Lucas efforts and a couple of gritty, old-fashioned country ballads that, judging by the clinging couples filling the dance floor, have been enthusiastically received by the Corral's crowd.

"Paper Thin," especially, written by Dave Gibson and Carol Chase, contains the raw melody and brass-tacks lyrics that go back well before the pasteurization of Nashville that took place when George "I Like Country Music" Bush was a mere vice president. You can almost hear Jim Ed Brown singing this song.

"We have a tight, identifiable sound and superb originals," band marketeer Lucas asserts. "We're meeting with some new people, shopping material around like everybody else."

Lucas shrugs. But despite his seeming insouciance, the band has freshened hope that this trip to Nashville will gain the one elusive, sympathetic ear that separates it from stardom.

Yet if nothing comes of this trip to Tennessee, that's all right, too. More elbows have been rubbed, more tapes slipped into polyester pockets, more contacts made. On September 18, the band opens for country newcomer Billy Dean at Graham Central Station, and then it's back to the packed houses at the Corral Tuesday through Sunday nights. They'll work on some new songs, polish up the favorites and just have a good old time. They know that the dotted line will be readied for their signatures at some point.

It's just a matter of time.

The Mark Lucas Band will perform at Graham Central Station on Wednesday, September 18, with Billy Dean. Showtime is 9 p.m.

"Yeah, I played with Louise Mandrell; I also did some gigs with her."

"You know, it sounds pretty stupid, but we just flat-out get along."

"It's true," says Rick Pacella. "Most bands do have three good musicians and a drummer."

"We're learning that you can know just about everybody and it doesn't mean a thing."

This band is certain that penetrating Nashville's bubble-popping pine curtain is a matter of when, not if.

THIS MYSTERY WON'T BE SOLVED THE CASE OF... v9-18-91

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Larry Crowley