By Chad Nance
Photos by Carissa Joines
Johnny Cash was a punk. Not the kind of punk that spends 10 to 20 gripping the cold iron of a jailhouse bunk, but a ge-nu-ine American bad ass that two generations of hard-core lunatics like Sid vicious and Tupac have tried and failed to equal. Johnny shot a man in Reno just to watch him die before Eminem was a mattress stain in a Michigan trailer park. That’s right y’all. It’s time for your best girl to get her Bettie Page on- hair dyed blacker than Jerry Lee Lewis’ heart or neon red so deep it glows, to go with her tight skirt that lifts and separates in ways that only Jane Mansfield could truly appreciate. Get some Murray’s Superior Pomade and get that pompadour lookin’ like the fins on a ‘57 Chevy. Make sure the neck and sidewalls are fully barbered, brother, ‘cause it’s time for Cash Bash 2014. It ain’t the Saturday Night Jamboree on KWEM,… but it’ll do.
If Richard Boyd Sr. was looking down from Hillbilly Heaven Saturday night he’d have been truly proud of his boy and the Bo-Stevens. Back in the 1950’s, during Winston-Salem’s “Golden Age”, Richard Sr. recorded country tunes not far from where The Garage stands today. That legacy remains real, vibrant, and palatable here in Camel City. Saturday night we rocked out like our mamas and daddys did. Like the words of the Bo-Steven’s song “The Biggest Man of All”:
When I was just a little boy
I’d watch you play that old guitar
And I thought you were like Johnny Cash
And those country music stars
I wanted to be just like you
And bend those guitar strings
Those country stars were big
But you were the biggest man of all…
The Mystery Hillbillies opened the show with a barn burning set of tightly focused, three-piece high-lighted by Michelle Belanger’s lived-in vocals. Hillbillies regular Calvin Johnson on the upright came the closest to Americana, easing the crowd into the evening connecting the mountain pickers to urban hot-rodders in a tactile way. The addition of a drummer and electric guitar brought on the Memphis and allowed their set to bridge that gap from the Carter Family Fold in Virginia to Johnny’s electrified Nashville career. Belanger’s stage presence and singing are warm, like sitting on a porch and listening to her croon over a chorus of crickets.
The Bo-Steven’s took the stage next and the room truly got to rockin’. Boyd told the audience that he wasn’t feeling so great. Rather than putting a damper on the first night of Cash Bash, the audience in The Garage seemed to gather around him and the rest of the band offered support and encouragement for their behavior. Greg Bell’s precision lead guitar alternated between the boogie and roll lilt of a solid Hag or Waylon Jennings number. Kerrie Sheehen on drums and Billie Feather on stand up bass provided a little sex and mystery creating a solid rhythm foundation for Boyd’s friendly charisma and heart-felt lyrical work. Much love must be given to Jeff Shu for his work on mandolin and pedal steel. Not only did Shu make an able side-man and foil for Boyd, his pedal steel picking truly carried much of the emotional weight of the Bo-Steven’s set. Make no mistake, however, Cash Bash isn’t just an excuse to drink PBR and get your greaser on. In a tangible way it is about community and family. Boyd’s dedication to his recently engaged goddaughter and the way that the Bo-Stevens brought audience members up on stage for the final number created an atmosphere that is hard to match in Camel City or damn near anywhere else these days.
While all of the Cash Bash acts were worth the price of admission by themselves, it was John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff who were the Honky Tonk heroes of the night. The ex-Two Dollar Pistols front man’s laconic and self-knowing stage presence carries with it an authenticity that permeates his music and their Cash Bash set. Howie Jr. isn’t some sort of post-ironic, hipster doing an impression of George Jones, Haggard, Dwight Yokam, or Buck Owens. Howie Jr. is the real thing. He’s lived these songs through failed marriages, road miles, and the kind of personal punishment that creates a Honky Tonk man with sawdust caked on the bottom of his boots and a broken heart as evidence of his worthiness. Tim Shearer on lead guitar and Nathan Golub on pedal steel bent the notes as needed and brought the Bakersfield sound to vibrant life on The Garage stage. Their work as well as Golub’s harmony and backing vocals added lushness to the Rosewood Bluff’s music. What separates true Honky Tonk from Americana these days is often a drum kit. Dave Hartman (Southern Culture on the Skids) took care of business on that front providing a strong foundation that kept Cash Bash swinging. Hartman seems to understand what 21st Century country acts don’t… If you can’t dance or cry to the music… it just ain’t fit for a Honky Tonk.
The MVP of Cash Bash was Billie Feather. She also played upright with the Bo-Stevens, but it was her work on the Rosewood Bluff set that truly went above and beyond. Her playing was spectacular, athletic, and helped Hartman create a strong through-line that held the set together and made it feel narrative and epic rather than simply a recreation of their recorded work or something thrown together during the ride from Chapel Hill Friday evening. Feather began the last number of the set balancing on the belly of her bass and ended the show by embracing the instrument in ways that were intimate, playful, and put the “show” in show business. What bands often forget when playing live is that they are on stage to provide not just a few good songs, but an experience- entertainment that you can get listening to digital files or watching You Tube. Recorded music has its own value and artistry, but until you stand a yard away from the band and experience the set with them and their audience, there is no way to truly get the full value of their work. Feather understands that dynamic and showed up Friday night at The Garage to go to work. This young woman is a live music find and stage presence of the first order and deserves the stellar career that is clearly in front of her… and she uses her bangs in ways that just might be an art unto itself.
The Straight 8’s know that North Carolina’s own Link Wray had “Swag” before it even dawned on gold-grilled rappers and suburban white kids. Elements of Bob Wills two-beat jazz rhythms and Physcobilly boogie were worked into the Straight 8’s set that was propulsive and vibrated with equal parts bravado and raw stamina. Watching Mark Murphy stand up at his kit and pound the drums without mercy or quarter all that comes to mind is one question: Why the hell are his surely shattered radius bones not protruding from his skin? If you’d come to Cash Bash to dance then this was your set to sweat with. Just always remember, pilgrims, if you have to watch your feet while you’re dancing, you’re most likely too drunk to do it.
Robert Striegler’s vocals and guitar work were mature, relentless, and focused fully on the boogie. Daniel Mebane’s bass is appropriately driving, but had a jazz influenced swing that helped set the Straight 8’s out as original than merely a group of talented musicians trying to re-create a “sound”.
By the time Truckstop Preachers took the stage it was past midnight, and those hearty souls who stuck it out from the jump were rewarded with one of the best live sets I’ve seen in many a moon. The band’s sound and novelty song edge reminded me of nights spent at Robert’s in downtown Nashville listening to BR-549 in the mid-90’s. Not that the Preachers are like BR-549 or any other live band for that matter. However, BR-549 used to begin their after midnight sets by playing a song about how Opie and Barney hid out with Otis near the still and smoked dope… and every second of The Truckstop Preachers’ performance felt just like that. There is a strange reverence for their rockabilly and punk roots, but the Preachers’ are iconoclastic and not afraid to stomp on the nuts of their contemporaries in the music business or challenge the audience to keep up.
Front man Nathan Palmer’s performance was sardonic, witty, and slovenly, going to such great lengths to bathe the audience in weirdness that it bordered on performance art. Imagine a used-car salesman, a game show host, and a lounge lizard mashed together and it is possible to get close to Palmer’s charismatic performance. The sumbitch looks like George W. Bush which gives him a frat boy edge that would be creepy if it wasn’t clear that not only is Palmer in on the joke- the joke’s on you.
Backing Palmer’s ambitious weirdness up was the solid musicianship of Jeff Faulkner (who had trouble keeping a straight face) on bass and Lee Goodwin on lead guitar, and the Truckstop Preachers are no mere novelty act to showcase the front man, they are also a genuine Honky Tonk outfit. Hell, when one of your best songs has the brilliant lyrics “I’m home getting hammered while she’s out getting nailed” you have, as a band, entered the kind of bizzaro comfort zone where David Allen Coe would recognize your act.
Cash Bash is not like other tribute festivals and shows. There are no overly reverent covers or the tendency to focus and feed off of the grief over the artist’s death create a cheap or meaningless atmosphere. Cash Bash is vibrant- exuberant in not only celebrating the man, but celebrating his era. Nostalgia only gets you so far, but Cash Bash at The Garage has always been more than that. It’s about the right now where the beer is cold, the music is jumping, and the fellowship lasts long into the wee hours no matter whose heart gets broke.