Steam Donkeys – Northern Americana
The Steam Donkeys are either psychic or just plain lucky. The Buffalo, New York. band called their first CD, released in 1994, Cosmic Americana, not realizing that soon afterward there would be a new radio format recognized by the trade magazines as “Americana.”
According to singer and guitarist Buck Quigley, it was purely a happy accident and more a Gram Parsons reference (to his “Cosmic American Music” circa the International Submarine Band) than anything else. “We’re gonna sue somebody over stealing it from us, though,” Quigley jokes.
The Parsons connection is deeper than that, however, as the Steam Donkeys manage a sly country vibe akin to Gram’s solo material. Clean instrumentation, great stage presence, and the polished, professional performance style of the band (which also includes Doug Moody on fiddle and mandolin, Charlie Quill on lead guitar, Joe Kross on drums and John Weber on bass) make them a crowd-pleaser.
The Steam Donkeys began plowing their way through the Northeast country music scene around 1991 and issued a cassette recording the following year titled Songs From A Stolen Guitar. “That title came from a guitar that I had which was signed by Roy Orbison. I had written those songs with that instrument, but it was stolen soon afterward,” Quigley explains. “I got into trouble in those early reviews because people thought I was advocating thievery.”
The only theft the Steam Donkeys practice is effortlessly lifting the sound of classic dancehall acts like Ray Price; they place the two-stepping tunes alongside ’50s-inspired rock ‘n’ roll numbers in their live sets. Quigley is a master of not-so-innocent innuendo and double-entendre lyricism such as “What You Been Spreadin’ Around” or “Put Your Money Where My Mouth Is”, but the Steam Donkeys couch their come-ons in some well-rounded arrangements featuring Moody’s exquisite fiddle solos.
With constant trips up and down the East Coast, the Steam Donkeys have become favorites in such far-flung locales as Atlanta; they appeared on the 1995 Sky Records compilation for that city’s Bubbapalooza festival. “The Buffalo-Atlanta connection came from playing there a bunch and finding a supportive fan base,” Quigley says.
A chance meeting with radio promoter Al Moss helped lead to a record deal with Atlanta indie label Landslide, which re-released the first CD and put out the band’s second disc, Little Honkytonks, in May. “We were selling CDs on consignment and at shows, so this was a way to get bigger distribution for an album we’re quite proud of,” Buck says of the re-release of Cosmic Americana.
The new album, Little Honkytonks, is a reflection of the band’s roots in the dancehalls and barrooms where their music sounds the best. “Buffalo has had a strong country scene for years,” he explains. “The Club Utica here in Buffalo, where we were practically the house band of sorts for a while, was open for 45 years and hosted everyone from Ernest Tubb to Wanda Jackson.”
Quigley doesn’t agree with any perception of country music as a purely Southern art form, anyway. “There is a general perception of country as having geographical boundaries, but that’s not really valid,” he says. “My interest goes back to my dad in Pennsylvania, listening to the broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry at night, shows that were heard all over the country on AM radio.”
The new album aims to capture the spirit of those older days and those little honky tonks for which the album is named — “little places like that which cease to be, that just don’t exist anymore,” Quigley says. But a little honky tonk is exactly where you’d expect to find a band like the Steam Donkeys.