Chip Robinson, charter member of Raleigh, NC honky-tonk'n'roll band the Backsliders, possesses a singing voice that a writer once described as "heaven-sent, provided that heaven is a backporch at 2 a.m. with a bottle being passed" (okay it was me, experiencing a rare semi-creative moment). Courtesy of a nasty cold that's most likely a souvenir from the band's recent roadtrip to Kentucky to open for Alejandro Escovedo, Robinson's voice is even gruffer than usual as he unfolds the rather mercurial early years of the Backsliders. "Hire 'em and fire 'em," he offers with a hoarse chuckle after roll-calling the close to a dozen folks who have Backslid at some point over the years.
The Backsliders began as a duo in late '90 when Robinson, who was doing the solo guy-and-his-guitar thing, got to talking with fellow guitarist Steve Howell at - where else? - Harry's Guitar Shop, and the two decided to pair up. Over the next four years, people (and formats) came and went as the Backsliders performed as a dobro-and fiddle-enhanced trio, a quartet with drums and pedal steel, and about any other rootsy combination you could construct. Eventually, ex-Sly Dog bassist Danny Kurtz, number three in terms of years of service, signed on permanently when Phil Lee packed up his 18-wheeler and headed to Nashville. The current five-piece line-up solidified in '95 when former Accelerator and Finger guitarist Brad Rice and West Coast transplant Jeff "J.D." Dennis joined up after a hard rock band the pair formed with a side-project-seeking Robinson and Howell ended up never seeing the light of night, partially because of a broken wrist suffered by Rice. Turned out to be quite a break for area country-rock fans.
After waiting patiently for five years (a little too patiently for some of us fans), the band signed with Mammoth Records this past summer and headed out to LA for what Robinson describes as a "whirlwind" recording session. "Mammoth said to think of your dream producers, give us five names. So we said Eric Ambel, Dave Alvin, Pete Anderson. Mitch Easter's name was in the hat. Pete was the first guy to call back, and he said he wanted to cut it... A week later we were in California, and 15 days later we were back home. It was like bam-bam-bam."
Lest we forget that in the term *music business* the emphasis is usually on the latter word, the resulting album, THROWIN' ROCKS AT THE MOON, has been wrapped up for 6 months but isn't scheduled to be released by Mammoth and Atlantic for another 3 months, a situation Robinson describes as a "double-edged sword." "The Powers That Be decided it would be better in January. It was a little frustrating because we were all geared up to get rolling." But he does acknowledge the plus side: Atlantic's involvement means the album will get a wider distribution, and THROWIN' ROCKS is slated as the only Mammoth release in the first quarter of '97.
Still, this is a restless bunch, so in the meantime the band and Mammoth have served us an appetizer in the form of a live 6-song EP. FROM RALEIGH, NC, recorded at the Brewery, Raleigh's premier nightspot and sweatbox, is a perfect distillation of an evening with the Backsliders. It moves from some of the band's quieter and catchier tunes ("Pain of Love" and the outstanding "Lexington Avenue") to the barn-burners "Hey Sheriff" and "Yep," bridging them with a cover of the Parsons and Hillman tune "High Fashion Queen." If THROWIN' ROCKS wasn't such a strong collection - mixing the John Hiatt-ish title track and another strong single candidate called "Paper Doll World" with rave-up weepers like "My Baby's Gone" and "Lonesome Teardrops" - this could have been a case of the hors d'oeuvre overshadowing the entree. The EP is currently in limited regional release, and when I mention its potential as a collector's item, Robinson comes back with "Man, I hope we sell a bunch so they're *not* a collector's item."
The only cut to appear on both releases, the genuinely frightening "Hey Sheriff," is a staple from Robinson and Howell's brief Available Jones days. It was born at the free-associating end of a beer-fueled 8-hour rehearsal, with Robinson screaming murderous thoughts over a "funk-groove thing," and then forgotten about until Howell showed up with a refined version a couple months later. (When the refinements involve lyrics threatening to feed a lawman to the hogs, you have to wonder what sorry fate was originally planned for the luckless sheriff.) Robinson likes the song because it gives him the chance to stalk around for 10 minutes every show. "Yeah, I like having a stage to prowl," he confesses. "But we've been playing places with 3-foot stages - a big rat in a small cage."
"Hey Sheriff" represents only one side - the spookiest, granted - of the band's ever-multiplying personality. (Do you know another band who does justice to "Sin City" *and* Radio Birdman's "Aloha Steve and Dano"?) With Howell and Rice's dueling electric guitars making the world safe for Robinson's acoustic, and "Slim Chance" Kurtz and J.D. forming a tonk-solid foundation, the Backsliders give you a glimpse at a world where Gram has come back from the desert to renew his friendship with the Stones and start one up with Crazy Horse. Says Robinson: "Someone asked what we sound like and I said 'Man, just hard-core honky-tonk.' We called it that before anybody could call it something else. . . . We're still just a bar band, pretty much." Well, until January anyway.
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)