Hoot Owls – A new kind of free bird
In Jacksonville, the country’s biggest small town, when a band plays something other than nouveau grunge or hip-hop-acid-jazz-fusion or “Free Bird”, one of two things happens: Either the band is ignored in hopes they will just go away, or a buzz is created. The latter is the case with the Hoot Owls.
It began three years ago, when the band started appearing at open mike night at the West Inn Lounge (Monty’s to the locals). The Hoot Owls’ brand of alternative-country (whatever that is) originals shone in stark contrast to their Gordon Lightfoot and America covers.
The foundation for the band, however, can be traced back quite a bit earlier, to a time when two young brothers, David and Darren Ronan, started banging out songs like “Hound Dog”. Although they see themselves as a part of the current roots movement, and are happy for it, David is quick to recall, “Darren and I started playing this type of music in our bedroom when we were 10.” And when they were 15, “we were doing the same thing only with girls in the room. But they’d always leave; ‘You’re weird.'”
The Ronan brothers grew up listening to old-time country around the house, but it wasn’t just via old records and eight-tracks. Their father was a regional country and western star in Orlando, Florida, in the 1950s. Under the name Florida Lee, he rode in the rodeo and was a regular performer on a local radio program called the Hoot Owl Jamboree (the inspiration for the band’s name). That show was an early influence on a young Gram Parsons, who would visit his grandmother in nearby Winter Haven.
As they got older, and got separate bedrooms, the brothers didn’t play together very often. Some 15 years later though, when Darren’s old band, the Senses, broke up, the boys decided it was time to put one of their father’s old sayings to work: “The first rocket they tried to launch never made it off the pad, so they kept at it until they got it right.” And the Hoot Owls were born.
The current Hoot Owl lineup features David singing lead and playing rhythm guitar, Darren on drums, Bobby Goin on lead electric guitar, and Ernie Ealum on upright bass. They have been together as such for about a year and a half. Goin has been honing his ultra-clean, sweet melodies on the local bar scene with swing jazz bands for the last 10 years. Ealum, a veteran of NashVegas-style C&W acts, uses his upright bass to give the Hoot Owls a rhythm that’s much more firmly rooted in country tradition.
The band’s first recorded effort, a full-length CD entitled Girl In Black, contains ten David Ronan originals. With song titles such as “Laura Has A Black Belt” and “She’s A Schoolteacher”, it’s obvious David has no desire to retread the same old country music themes. In fact, his dry sense of humor, as well as his singing voice, are more akin to Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway than Tim McGraw. That sense of humor is shared by the brothers, and it runs over into the live show, with all the Elvis-style karate moves and Smothers Brothers-style jokes one can stomach. But when they begin playing, the affection they have for their material outshines everything else.