Highway Matrons – Mother of all roads
As any aficionado of Americana can tell you, St. Louis was the largest city between Chicago and Los Angeles along historic Route 66. It is fitting, then, that trivia about the “Main Street of America” would provide inspiration for the name of St. Louis band the Highway Matrons. Around mid-century, when Route 66 was bustling with traffic, Phillips Petroleum employed uniformed women, known as Highway Hostesses, to roam the road, aiding stranded motorists and inspecting restrooms for cleanliness.
Nevertheless, when asked about his band’s moniker, drummer Fred Friction flatly states, “I don’t like it.” Guitarist Mark Stephens (who was formerly obsessed with Route 66) defends it, claiming that it is superior to the other names they batted around, such as The Burlap Wedgie. “Yeah, Semen-Filled Maggot Donut was a consideration at one point,” Friction says.
“But I thought that might be limiting to the type of music we could play,” Stephens deadpans.
In the early ’90s, Friction participated in the elaborate Christmas Pageants staged by Stephens’ former band, the Boorays. Stephens, in turn, helped Friction with his legendary “Night of 1000 Spoons.” This was an annual event at Cicero’s that featured music, skits, door prizes, an instructional seminar, and an audience participation segment in which everyone in the room played a set of spoons. The two started the Highway Matrons in 1994.
At last October’s Midwest Regional Music Festival, the band roared through a captivating set at the Tap Room. Particularly impressive was the soft/loud dynamic of “Leaver”, which juxtaposed Stephens’ whispered vocals with the crunchy power chords he coaxed from his big black Gretsch. Another highlight was “I Need a Girl”, about as pleading an expression of that sentiment as one is likely to hear onstage.
The most enthusiastic crowd response came when Friction stepped out from behind his kit to sing lead and play spoons. After strapping a microphone to his knee (better to amplify his spoon-beats), Friction barked out the opening verse to “Jailhouse Tattoo”: “You’re a coupla quarts over, you still need more/There’s a blood bank over by the liquor store/You can sell one pint and buy another next door/Not that I’ve ever been there before.”
Stephens, who’s a big Replacements fan, and Friction, who cites Tammy Wynette as a key influence, collaborate when composing the band’s original material. Each brings ideas to rehearsal; the duo shares a mutual admiration tinged with one-upmanship. “I steal phrases from Fred while he’s mumbling in his sleep,” Stephens confesses.
In addition to their self-titled debut album, the band also has contributed tracks to two St. Louis-area compilations –1996’s Out Of The Gate Again and 1997’s The Way Out Club. The latter is a showcase for the six bands in the Rooster Lollipop musicians’ cooperative (the Matrons, Free Dirt, Johnny Magnet, Ouija, Soul Food Cafe, and Trip Daddys). These bands have pooled their creative and financial resources to design, illustrate, record, produce and distribute each other’s albums on the Rooster Lollipop label.
Both Stephens and Friction yearn to quit their day jobs and tour nationally. Friction waits tables and Stephens works as a cook and part-time stitcher, sewing rockers’ stage clothing. Stephens is quite comfortable doing a job that has been traditionally held by women: “I’ve got the most manly looking sewing machine you’ve ever seen,” he boasts. “Sewing is one of the most manly things you can do. I’ve made a lot of clothes for myself…dresses, mostly.”
As any good Highway Matron would do.