People who like to throw labels around once labeled his music alt country. ’”I don’t know what that means,” singer/ guitarist John Howie says. His sound is what country used to sound like and still oughta if it has that label. It's honky-tonk as all get out, full of twang and tension, peppered with pedal steel and hosted by a voice that sounds like it just unfurled itself from the toes of Ernest Tubb's muddy cowboy boots.
The Chapel Hill native started his musical life as a punk drummer, but outlaw country was always running warm through his veins. He went to England at 19 and drummed for a punk band, but when he discovered that English kids were heavily into country he took another look, took up guitar, and in '95 formed the Two Dollar Pistols. For a decade the Pistols' hard core honky-tonk often confounded critics who dubbed it too country. But Howie honky-tonked on, churning out 5 full length CDs and an EP duet with Tift Merritt before the Pistols breakup in '08.
Howie started up Rosewood Bluff shortly afterwards, salvaging Pistols drummer Matt Brown and recruiting pedal steel virtuoso Nathan Golub. Brown passed away in '12, and Howie recruited SCOTS drummer Dave Hartman, bassist Billie Feather and guitarist Tim Shearer for his latest, Everything Except Goodbye.
It's pure country, Howie leaning heavily on the twang. The Southern Culture On The Skids frontman Rick Miller-produced vehicle has Howie swooping and soaring through the kudzu. “The Man I Used to Be” sounds like Dave Dudley channeling George Jones singing Merle Haggard. The title cut is pure Jones, tearful hiccups ladled over a platter of moan basted with buckets of Bakersfield.
“The Wash Up” has a Dave Dudley truck driver feel as Howie bemoans his wrecked love live while roaring full throttle down the road howlin' like a love struck banshee.
The band is a big part of Bluff country. Golub's pedal steel is right up there with country's finest pedlars Buddy Emmons and Ralph Mooney. Feather and Hartman sound like they're married, locked together in conjugal, rhythmic bliss, while Shearer shreds the twang into delicious slivers.
Howie seems to dig deeper and deeper as the record goes on, wallowing in classic country, belting out truckstop heartbreakers by the score, more than enuff to deplete a lovesick trucker's wallet feeding the jukebox to keep this stuff pumping out over a puddle of tears.
All this stuff is original except for a Mickey Newbury cover, “Why You Been Gone So Long.” Howie gives it a complete makeover, punching it up with a stiff shit-kicker wallop and a prickly pedal steel tickling Howie's stoned, Thunderbird-soaked basso on the last verse before he roars back with an impassioned query about his long gone lover's absence.
The record is dedicated to Matt Brown, and the closer, “Blue” is a fitting tribute filled with Howie's mournful howls as his friend is washed out to sea while he remains stranded on the shore.
Howie's been to Nashville a few times, even played at Opryland on a stage close to the steps of the Grand Ole Opry. But the singer says Georgia, Pennsylvania and especially New York give him the most enthusiastic reception outside his hometown. This record should change all that, giving Rosewood Bluff a chance to overlook a bigger, more exclusive chunk of country real estate, regardless of the location.