Los Lonely Boys – Brothers in arms
A few details were missing from the film and the concert that Friday in March. Neither event captured how grueling the roadwork is, or how excessive the demands on your time can become when you’re hot. Perhaps the most glaring omission was the younger Ringo’s run-in with the law. According to news reports coming out of San Angelo in January 2005, two women who’d been partying with the drummer and his wife, along with friends at a local club, accused the drummer of drugging their drinks and taking them home and sexually assaulting them. No charges were filed by San Angelo police, but Ringo was arrested for marijuana possession after a search of his house, and the band lost a few endorsements and gigs.
The film didn’t quite capture just how lonely their Nashville period was, either, or how close they’d come to making a deal before. Los Lonely Boys first came into the radar of their manager, Kevin Wommack, in 1999 through Wommack’s pal Rob Fraboni, who’d produced and engineered everyone from the Beach Boys and the Stones to The Band and Dylan. Fraboni wanted Wommack, whose main act was Austin blues band Omar & the Howlers, to take a look at this group he’d heard playing a live concert on the radio in Nashville. They were the kind of band Fraboni was looking for to sign to the new custom label he was putting together with Keith Richards, but they were in severe need of management. Would Wommack take a look and listen?
Wommack traveled to Destin, Florida, where the band was playing the Hog’s Breath. He thought they were pretty good for a cover band, played a lot of Beatles and Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of several bluesy cats they referenced that Wommack had played alongside in Austin back in the 1970s when he fronted his own band, the Wommack Brothers. Their harmonies were particularly tight. There was something there, he told Fraboni. (The CD Live At Blue Cat Records, recorded November 2000, captures some of what was there.)
But Fraboni and Keef’s label never happened, and a few months later the Garza brothers folded their tent and left Nashville to go home to San Angelo.
A couple years later, they called Wommack in Austin. They needed help with gigs. Wommack booked some club dates at places such as the Satellite Lounge in Houston, Antone’s in Austin, and Blue Kat Blues in Dallas, and arranged opening slots in front of other bands he worked with. He also called Freddy Fletcher.
Wommack needed a studio to do a demo. Fletcher ran Arlyn Studios in Austin, the busiest recording studio in town, and partnered with his uncle, Willie Nelson, at Pedernales Studios. Wommack played Fletcher a rough live tape. Fletcher concluded “these guys are really good,” especially their vocals, and offered Wommack at day at Arlyn.
“I came back from out of town and put the disc of what they recorded in my CD player,” Fletcher said. “They had sixteen songs that they’d cut in a single day. I freaked out. They had ‘Heaven’ on there and just a great bunch of songs. They’d never done much work in a studio at all, and they just blew me away.”
Fletcher told Willie, and the two showed up with their wives to check out the band at Momo’s, a small upstairs room above a deli in Austin. The Boys asked their guests if their music was too loud. They were told their music was just fine as it was.
Wommack and the band signed a production deal with Willie and Freddy. Jim Gaines, the Memphis producer whose had done records with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Carlos Santana, was brought in to make an album.
“I’ve never dealt with a new band. That’s like suicide,” Fletcher laughed. “We spent a lot of money on that record and wanted to make it right. I liked them a lot. I could see they were brothers and they weren’t going to kill each other and split up. I thought it was a fairly good shot. I just loved what they did.”
Willie did his part by playing the advisory role as their Yoda. He added them to the bills of his Fourth of July Picnics and Farm-Aids, and brought them to his own personal Shangri-La on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where his unassuming ranch house overlooks the blue Pacific and neighbors like Kris Kristofferson and Pat Simmons sometimes drop in. He took the Boys behind a curtain of beads at his home and into Django’s Lounge, the home studio of dreams. There, Willie engaged Ringo in chess, $100 a game, shirtless and with his braids unwound while nothing but Hank Williams played on the shortwave, with Willie offhandedly remarking how much he liked Hank’s lyrics.
All the majors passed on the album that Gaines produced and Willie and Freddy bankrolled. No one at the labels knew how to classify the Boys. Even local indie Antone’s passed. Salvation came a few months later with a call from Michael Kaplan, an Epic A&R rep. Kaplan said he loved the demo when he first heard it, but knew too well his bosses wouldn’t so he had to pass. But he informed Wommack that had recently left Epic and joined forces with Larry Miller to start a new boutique label called Or Music. Willie Nelson’s favorite new band was just the kind of act to roll the dice with the new label. Kaplan flew down with Miller to see if Los Lonely Boys could play live as well as they played in the studio. They were sold at soundcheck.
Or Music asked for and got a whole new recording with John Porter as producer. Porter was a cool cat, a voracious reader and guitarist from England by way of Los Angeles. The self-titled debut album was released in August 2003, with “Real Emotions” as the radio single.
But when advance pressings were distributed to radio folks at the Non-Com Triple A Conference in Louisville, programmers from several non-commercial, left-of-the-dial Adult Album Alternative stations, including WFUV-FM in New York and WXPN-FM in Philadelphia (home of the syndicated World Cafe, carried on 200 stations), thought otherwise. They actually listened to the album and heard the same thing that Jody Denberg, the program director of KGSR-FM, Austin’s commercial Americana station, had heard. “Real Emotions” wasn’t the single. “Heaven” was the one that had legs as a song. Their ears and their insistence made all the difference in the world.
A week after the movie premiere and the new-album concert in Austin, the Garzas were still savoring the buzz back home in San Angelo, where construction was under way at Lonelyville, 30 acres of land on the Rio Concho the Garzas recently bought, and where they are all building homes. From that distance, their big day and night in Austin was still fresh on their minds.
“First of all, it was an honor that they found some interest in us,” JoJo said about Galan’s film. “It’s kind of hard to describe when somebody else puts your life together, but they did such a phenomenal job, man. It hit the heart when it needed to, made you laugh when it needed to, make you think about some bad things — it took you on the full rollercoaster ride. It had a lot of history; to be honest, there were things in there even I didn’t know.”