Hello Strangers – Big as breakfast
It’s 1 p.m. at Ladyman’s Cafe and Hello Strangers are sitting down to a heart-attack breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, bacon, hotcakes — and vessels of black coffee. “It’s OK. Glenn’s trained in CPR now,” jokes fiddler and pedal steel player Dennis Scoville, as he breaks his fragile yolks with a fork.
Not quite yearlings, Hello Strangers are like musical beefalo, a hybrid of untamed, reckless roustabouts and easygoing, sweet balladeers. The fivesome’s debut disc, Caledonia, mirrors the band members’ divergent rock and country roots. Singer/guitarist John Strohm began his musical career in the mid-’80s with the Lemonheads, then migrated to indie pop bands the Blake Babies and Antenna before coming to country.
Strohm recruited drummer Mitch Harris from their previous outfit, Velo-Deluxe. Bassist Glenn Hicks fronts his own rock band, El Nino, when he’s not touring with Capitol Records artist Lisa Germano. Scoville and lead guitarist Steve “Chili” Woods are the band’s country purists — to the point that Woods proclaims: “Alternative rock is for people who can’t play their instruments.”
Released on Indianapolis-based Flat Earth Records, Caledonia bloomed from a series of four-track demos that humbly began as a Christmas present for Strohm’s girlfriend. “I started writing country songs three years ago,” Strohm explains. “But the country influence has always been there. If you listen to Antenna or Velo-Deluxe records, you’ll find it.”
Anchored by a granite-solid rhythm section, Hello Strangers’ songs are textured by Woods’ sharp string-bending, Scoville’s silky pedal steel, and well-placed dollops of banjo and fiddle. Sandwiched between tear-jerking originals “Beside You” and “Slip Away” is a raucous cover of Michael Martin Murphey’s “Geronimo’s Cadillac”; they’ve also been known to cover the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life”.
Credit the album’s unrestrained feel to the record label’s laissez-faire approach, and to the unruly crowd of fans who danced and drank through the sessions. “Flat Earth’s purity is rare and refreshing….They fully allow me creative freedom,” said Strohm, who temporarily rejoined the Lemonheads last fall for European and American tours. “And the party atmosphere feel on the tracks is great. We wanted to keep it to as many first takes as possible. There are mistakes, but the whole thing works.”
That easygoing attitude has allowed Hello Strangers to retain a sense of musical camaraderie — not only among members, but between band and audience. “The main reason to do this band is, before there was too little playing and too much business,” Strohm said, referring to his past musical stints. “All the fun times I’ve had have been playing, getting together and having a hoot.”