Jolene – Ardently pursuing their Hee-Haw memories
Talking about middle-class white kids and how they first got into
music, producer Jim Dickinson once said, “Everybody learned it from the yardman.”
Well, not quite everybody.
“My first experience with country music was actually watching ‘Hee Haw’ when I was a kid,” admits Dave Burris, guitarist for the North Carolina country-rock band Jolene. “After that, it was Elvis Costello, then Chrissie Hynde saying Patsy Cline was her favorite singer. This was back when everybody else was saying, ‘Porter Wagoner?! Fuck that, I wanna hear this Cheap Trick record again.’ Now, though, everybody thinks Porter Wagoner is pretty cool — especially those suits.”
Some two decades post-“Hee Haw”, Burris and his bandmates in Jolene are back to playing the country music they grew up with through those secondhand sources. They all took some lengthy detours getting there, however.
Burris played in a series of bands, including ex-Let’s Active guitarist Angie Carlson’s band Grover and atmospheric funk-rock group The Veldt. The high point of The Veldt’s ill-fated two-album tenure for Mercury Records was probably appearing in Salt-N-Pepa’s video for “The End” (“the least successful one they’ve ever done, which figures,” Burris notes dourly).
Jolene’s principal songwriter, John Crooke, formerly led the Charlotte area rock band Hardsoul Poets, with a lineup including Jolene’s “Two Mikes” rhythm section of bassist Mike Mitschele and drummer Mike Kenerley. And pedal steel guitarist Bill Ladd logged many years and even more miles touring with regional punk-funk favorites Johnny Quest.
All these other bands were winding down about the same time in 1994. Burris began collaborating separately with Crooke (his cousin) and Ladd (who had just taken up pedal steel). Before long, all three were writing and playing songs together. They adopted the name Jolene from the title of a Dolly Parton song.
“As a base, the songs in Jolene are not that different from what any of us were doing before, except maybe for Bill,” Burris explains. “The country colors sort of define them — using pedal steel or fiddle as lead instrument, or playing an arpeggio on a banjo rather than a guitar.”
Highlighting the group’s self-titled, seven-song debut on Ardent Records is an ace cover of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s wistful “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown.” The rest of the EP is reminiscent of mid-’80s roots-rock bands such as the Long Ryders or Del Lords — bar-band rock rhythms, earnest vocals, and lots of big, big guitars.
The EP makes a fine preview of the band’s upcoming full-length debut album, Hell’s Half Acre, due out Jan. 17 on Ardent. The fact that Jolene has hooked up with Ardent, the recently reactivated Memphis-based label that was home to legendary pop cultists Big Star in the ’70s, thrills Burris to no end (especially the fact that he got to use the late Chris Bell’s amplifier during recording sessions at Ardent Studios).
“Getting signed to Ardent was just huge for me, more so than the other guys, I think,” Burris says. “I had some trepidation about jumping back into the whole industry thing because being on Mercury with The Veldt was one of the most horrible experiences I’ve ever had. But somehow, when it’s [Big Star drummer] Jody Stephens you’re talking to about business things, that just makes it all better.”
[editor’s note: Jolene isn’t really from Kill Devil Hills. The band’s members are split between the Chapel Hill and Charlotte metropolitan areas, so rather than give either city credit for the band’s residency, we assigned them a neutral hometown. However, there is indeed a city in North Carolina called Kill Devil Hills. No, really; look on the map.]