Backsliders – Fallen angels with grizzled faces
The music scene around Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is about as balkanized as…well, the former Yugoslavia. You’ve got your punk rock kids, technique fetishists, frat-party bands, heavy metal bands, pop bands. Most all of them keep to themselves in their respective, mutually exclusive corners, which goes for the bands as well as audiences.
But if there’s a single consensus band that cuts across the scene’s different strata, it’s the Backsliders, who rule the roost when it comes to Tar Heel country-rock. Locally, they’re regarded with something akin to awe. They have the air of grizzled-yet-hip older brothers, partly because they’re old enough to have been around the block a few times (all five are at least within shouting distance of 40).
All of them are also bordering-on-virtuoso players who wound up playing in this classic hard-core honky-tonk band after logging time in other far-flung quadrants of the scene. Guitarist Brad Rice and drummer Jeff Dennis played in hard-rock bands; guitarist Steve Howell played blues and bluegrass; bassist Danny Kurtz played pop and country; singer-guitarist Chip Robinson did a little of everything.
“That’s why the band sounds like it does,” Robinson says. “Everybody came from different, almost fringe elements and ended up in this band. Everybody brought their own thing to this big stewpot, and that’s the soup we got out of it.”
The Soup du Backsliders includes plenty of No Depression verities — Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, the Beat Farmers (“Gun Sale at the Church” is one of their live-set staples), Jason & the Scorchers, Neil Young and, of course, Gram Parsons. Had Parsons lived another 10 years, his voice probably would have aged into something like Robinson’s likable ragamuffin twang.
Parsons probably would have wound up with a band as rocking as the Backsliders, too. Their triple-guitar lineup brings to mind the mid-’80s glory days of the True Believers, another band with three guitars that sounded nothing at all like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Except the Backsliders do have one song that sort of sounds like Skynyrd: “Hey Sheriff”, a spooky redneck tale of a standoff with The Law gone horribly awry.
“Hey Sheriff” is the one song that appears on both the 1996 live EP From Raleigh, North Carolina (Mammoth Records) and the full-length Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon (Mammoth/Atlantic, due out Jan. 28). The live record captures the Backsliders in their natural element — a hot summer night last July at their hometown nightclub the Brewery, a club that is to the Backsliders what the Armadillo World Headquarters was to Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen.
The Backsliders were always a great honky-tonk band, going back to their early days five years ago with local guitar ace Larry Hutcherson on lap steel. But it was the punkier leanings of Brad Rice, who joined in 1995 after Hutcherson departed to concentrate on his own blues band, that kicked the Backsliders into a higher gear.
There’s plenty of octane on Live From Raleigh, especially Rice’s withering guitar flipout at the apex of “Hey Sheriff”. The record also captures lots of the irrepressible Robinson’s priceless between-song banter, although nothing as colorful as his usual intro for the song “King of the World”: “This one goes out to every woman who’s ever let me put my face in that special place.”
Actually, Robinson says he’s been advised to pursue a more, shall we say, low-key direction. “I’d like to figure that people would be pretty open-minded and get that it’s just a joke,” he says sheepishly. “We don’t thrive on making people mad at us, so we’re trying to tone it down a little — and I’ve gone a lot farther than that on intros before, believe me. But I kept kinda…you know, hearing about it afterward.”