Chip Robinson – Sliding in and out of grace
One bitter night in 1997, the Backsliders played the leading edge of a snowstorm at Schubas Tavern in Chicago for ten souls with less sense than love for rock ‘n’ roll. Like the Southern sun, the stage lights echoed from the wooden walls as the beat and the reverb filled the room and singer Chip Robinson danced onstage like some semi-civilized Rumpelstiltskin, stomping his left foot with his whole self, leering, laughing deeply, soulfully, at the joke. It’s life, you know? If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
He paced the stage like a madman in long, purposeful strides, then planted himself as if against a wall: resigned but defiant, hopeless but unbowed. “Hey sheriff! Get offffffa my porch!” he cried. Not a chance, of course; he’s a man indelibly marked by circumstance. But it’s his porch, as his mortal soul is witness, until he draws his last breath on it. And not even his last breath will be a desperate one.
The song ended with a blistering guitar duel: a fierce, articulate rock squall from Brad Rice, a striking silent type with forehead covered to his eyes in a cloud of black hair and feet clad in gleaming patent-leather Doc Martens, countered by a fireworks of piercing twang from Steve Howell, a wiry western slinger in a bolo tie. Take that, you mutherfucker. Take that!
On that midwinter night, the Backsliders were at the top of their form and on the cusp of releasing Throwing Rocks At The Moon, which went on to spend three weeks atop Gavin magazine’s Americana chart. The Mammoth Records disc followed up a 1996 live EP, From Raleigh, North Carolina, which had introduced the rest of the country to one of the Carolinas’ best-kept secrets.
In early 1998, the Backsliders entered a Louisiana studio with producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel to record Southern Lines, a leap in songwriting maturity and rock sensibility that at once validates the potential of their early releases and sweeps that local bar band out the door like a broken bottle. But by the time Southern Lines was finally released — on April 27, more than a year after the initial sessions were completed — the band had warped and broken irretrievably, along lines scored into their future from the day they formed, and fractured by the exigencies of a business fundamentally inhospitable to fragility.
The Backsliders began in the early ’90s, when former co-leader Steve Howell, now a member of Raleigh honky-tonkers Two Dollar Pistols, was playing in an electric blues band he was trying to steer toward country. He also had a bluegrass band. “I was always looking for people to get together and play acoustic music,” he says, “to do a little bit more middle-of-the-road kinda stuff, the Gram Parsons stuff.”
Robinson, who’d been performing solo acoustic, began booking acoustic dates for the two of them in restaurants and clubs around Raleigh. They were occasionally joined by other players, but when he met a steel player at a weekly jam session at the Berkeley Cafe, Robinson approached Howell about forming a new project to play electric country rock in the vein of Joe Ely, Dave Alvin and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Thus began a regular Sunday jam that included the steel player, a bassist from Howell’s electric project, and the drummer from Robinson’s rock trio, Empty Face.
They played their first show as the Backsliders in February 1992. Their first original tune, “The Lonely One”, was a “country walkin’ song” Howell had written two or three years earlier, to which Robinson added a second verse. On Easter Sunday 1992, the band recorded it along with covers of the Burritos’ “Juanita” and the Beat Farmers’ “Gun Sale At The Church”. Later they made a tape of these tracks and added another Howell original, “Southern Line”.
The same year, they released “The Lonely One” on a split 7-inch with Nashville country-rocker Phil Lee, who was then living in Raleigh. After Lee moved to Nashville, his bassist, Danny Kurtz, brought more stability to a Backsliders lineup through which players had been passing like beer. Shortly thereafter, the Backsliders settled on a drummer and, apart from continuing flux in the pedal and lap steel slot, the band’s lineup stayed stable for a year.
The summer of 1994 was particularly slow, so Robinson and Howell formed a rock side project with Raleigh drummer Jeff Dennis, just back from a two-year sojourn in Los Angeles, and guitarist Brad Rice, who had earned acclaim as a member of Finger and the Accelerators. Rice soon replaced the Backsliders’ final steel guitarist, Larry Hutcherson. On the strength of Rice’s involvement, Dennis filled the drum slot in February 1995.
While the pair solidified the lineup, they also brought a fault slip to the sound of the band. Neither had experience playing country music. Howell says the new sound first intrigued him, because his country style and Rice’s full-on rock seemed to complement each other naturally to a wonderful result. But where Howell had previously seen the Backsliders as a country-rock vision, he began, to his discomfort, to view them more as a rock band with country influences.
This shift, which ultimately led to Howell’s departure, otherwise captivated new fans. Articles on the Backsliders surfaced in the local press and in Billboard, and labels soon came calling. The changing times also had something to do with it: “All of a sudden,” recalls Howell, “Uncle Tupelo was like the Beatles or something. Everybody on the block had a country band.”
Mammoth, with headquarters in nearby Carrboro and a roster that included Jason & the Scorchers, had a hometown advantage. Mammoth executives began dropping in on every Backsliders show, and by August 1995, they’d offered the band a deal. The Backsliders hired a lawyer to review the contract — they had no manager — and then spent eight months defining terms the label, the attorneys and all five band members could agree on.