Hobart Willis & The Back Forty – From Clash to Cash
As epiphanies go, it’s a damn fine one. “I heard ‘Ring Of Fire’ by Johnny Cash,” recalls Chris Clark. “And I’d heard it all my life — but [this one time] it really just hit me. It hit me like the Clash had hit me years before. I really, really loved it.”
Like a number of current country-rockers, Clark — or Hobart Willis, as he’s known when fronting the Back Forty — did not embrace country music right out of the blocks. He started out as a fan of Black Flag before playing in various metal and glam bands. When he returned to the family homestead in Snow Camp, North Carolina, a few years ago, Clark spent a lot of time with his World War II veteran grandfather, soaking up the country tunes his grandfather played on 8-track tapes in his work shed.
“It seemed so exotic and mysterious,” Clark says. “It just had everything that made me fall in love with punk and metal, but it was even more there with classic country.” One day his grandfather surprised him by saying, “You know, I really wish I could do that. I’d love to be a country singer.” Clark was inspired: “It kind of stuck with me: I could do that.”
So he did, with a plan in mind. “Faron Young struck me as kind of a blueprint of where I wanted to go,” he says. “He could do a really honky-tonk cheatin’ ballad one minute and then turn around and do a rocked-up, kinda train-beat song the next.”
Last year, with a Back Forty lineup that’s now long gone, he released a promising six-song EP. “I was just trying to get a good feel for what country was for me — sort of really loose, good-time, upbeat music,” Clark explains. He used the Replacements-driven attitude of a previous band as a starting point of sorts. “The scenery changes a little bit,” he chuckles, contemplating the songwriting shift. “You have to talk about the dance hall and the jukebox. It was the transformation from Paul Westerberg to Dwight Yoakam.”
For the full-length Full Amigo Flavor, released independently in the fall of 2002, the Back Forty roster has stabilized (led by the twin-guitar attack of former Jack Black leader Dave Quick and current Trailer Bride member Tim Barnes). Clark’s songwriting has continued to mature, and the band’s sound has filled out with Southwestern touches inspired by the likes of Joe Ely and Doug Sahm.
“I wanted to write songs that would last and be wrapped around a real variety of structures,” Clark says. “Gosh, we have honky-tonk, Freddy Fender-type ballads, even Buddy Holly kind of stuff. [We wanted to] just kind of do what Doug did.”