Skeeterhawks – Following the real jukebox heroes
An Arkansas state song by Gregory Joe Spradlin would rock you like the wind of an Ozark overlook, where tips of descending burnt-yellow sycamores open on the gleaming blue of Lake Quachita. You’d hear the whir of reapers combing grain on the loamy lowland delta, and feel the spirit of growing up where the map shows in tiny, fading type what’s marked on inhabitants’ hearts indelibly in bold face. You’d then see as clearly as Spradlin does the sturdy merit in being what you are and knowing it.
Now he’s in Little Rock, but Spradlin’s home is tiny Pangburn, population 674. He grew up listening to his mother’s 45s, sent by her father when pipeline work kept him away for months at a time. “He’d pay a dollar a box for them when the jukeboxes changed,” Spradlin explains. “She got all the original Elvis stuff, all the Howling Wolf Chess stuff, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry. That’s what I started out listening to.”
Spradlin’s uncle played in a Creedence Clearwater Revival band. “Before I could read they’d put X’s on the (sleeves) of records I liked.” Spradlin says. “My favorite toy was the record player my granddad had rigged to call square dances to.”
Drummer Bart Angel lived up the road in Mountain Home. The two met in high school and earned spending money playing country music through college. Meanwhile, bassist Mike Nelson built a reputation playing blues and funk. “He is and always has been the bass player around town,” Spradlin says.
“We are uniquely Arkansas,” Spradlin contends, “but instead of saying ‘This is a mirror of where we come from,’ people here just go, ‘Well, this doesn’t sound like Pearl Jam.’ In Little Rock, they know what they’d like to be — Dallas or Atlanta. They don’t know what they have in this cultural amalgam of their own, and that it would be cool to be who they are.”
San Francisco-based Synapse Records, branching out from rap, believes in broader popularity for this Arkansas sound, having just added the Skeeterhawks to their roster.
Spradlin’s songs reveal a range of influences not often credited since the ’70s: guitar-driven country rock tinged heavily with blues and soul. Of his lyrics, Spradlin says, “The ones that aren’t obviously stories should be left to the imagination.” The stories can be chilling. “Bessie’s Hand” relates an undocumented legend about Bessie Smith dying alongside Highway 61 while white drivers passed by rather than carry her the mile to Clarksdale hospital. The turbocharged “Preacherman” fills in ugly blanks of children’s testimony at an East Tennessee church. “Hummingbird” is a dark slice of life overheard from a telephone booth in a New Orleans diner.
Spradlin admits abiding love for Mahalia Jackson’s no-nonsense gospel delivery. His own voice glides and darts tastefully around a rural South idiom, but, Spradlin says quietly, “I never had confidence in my voice. I always felt like I was born to play guitar.”
Therein lies his mission. “We’ve been sent to save rock ‘n’ roll,” Spradlin says. “It’s come so far from what it originally was; there’s no rhythm, there’s no soul.” He laughs. “If not us, who?”