Two Dollar Pistols – Honky-tonk with a bullet
Depending on how you reckon it, You Ruined Everything is either the third Two Dollar Pistols album, or the first. Ask frontman John Howie, and he’ll lean toward the latter. At the very least, You Ruined Everything is a statement: It’s the first Pistols album with no cover songs, and the first for which Howie had the luxury of a stable, dedicated, full-time lineup.
“For the first time, this is like a real band,” Howie enthuses. “This will be the first time I’ll get to tour with the same core band that was on the record, which I’ve wanted to do all along. It’s just been so hard. But I’ve had this core group together for two and a half years, and we’ve spent that literally around the world, working it out live.”
The work shows. Produced by Pete Weiss (Charlie Chesterman, Willard Grant Conspiracy) and recorded in a brisk week at Southern Culture On The Skids’ Kudzu Ranch Studio in Mebane, North Carolina, You Ruined Everything (released in August on Yep Roc Records) has plenty of the Pistols’ trademark tears-in-your-beer heartache. “That Someone Isn’t Me”, “I Can See It In Your Eyes” and “You’ve Grown Tired Of Me” aren’t just sad songs; they’re honky-tonk epics with steel guitars crashing like ocean waves, and Howie’s stoic baritone standing in for every jilted guy there ever was.
Improbably, the album also includes some of the poppiest songs the Pistols have ever played. “Gettin’ Gone” has chiming Byrdsy guitars, and the backup vocal arrangement of “I Can See It In Your Eyes” is vaguely reminiscent of ’70s-period Elton John.
“Songs never come out like you think they will,” Howie muses. “I wrote ‘Gettin’ Gone’ while listening to ’60s Glen Campbell stuff, and initially I was afraid of that one; thought it was maybe too ‘rock.’ But the guys encouraged me to go with what felt good and not worry so much about parameters.”
You Ruined Everything does have a few tunes that are less dour, notably the love song “I Will” and the hopeful album-closer “The Other Side”. But those are the exceptions — and as Howie points out about the latter song, he’s still just saying he thinks he’s through with the bad times.
“That song and ‘I Will’ are about as close to happy songs as I’ve ever written,” he says. “But you won’t hear too many of those out of me. Happy’s not a creative state of mind for me, even though that sounds hokey to say. When I’m happy, the last thing I want to do is sit down and try to write.”
The silver lining of Howie’s last few years is that he’s had plenty of motivation to write. In addition to his ongoing struggles to keep a band together, he and his wife divorced two years ago (although they remain friendly; she even designed the You Ruined Everything cover, ironically enough).
After the divorce, Howie went through another painful in-and-out-of-love cycle with another woman. But despite the intersection of real-life pain and downcast musical tone, he says the songs on You Ruined Everything aren’t as autobiographical as you might think.
“Some are about general emotional states,” he says. “‘All I Can Think Of Is You’, that one came from a really bad emotional place. I’ve already had people ask if certain songs are about them. I tell anybody who asks, ‘That’s for me to know and you to wonder.'”
Real life got even rougher after You Ruined Everything was completed. Howie’s father, John Sr., died following open-heart surgery on July 1, at age 68. The loss was even harder to reconcile because the elder Howie seemed to be in fine health. He was a runner, Howie says, and had asked the doctors if he’d be able to run after the surgery. The doctors answered, “Try walking,” and Howie thinks his dad might have just shut down because he wasn’t going to be able to do the things he wanted.
While Howie says they had their ups and downs, the two were very close. The elder Howie was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, a year before Elvis Presley (and delivered by the same doctor). Along with being a friend and confidante, the father also had a lot to do with molding the son’s tastes.
“He was my main man, the biggest reason why I like country music,” Howie says. “My mom is why I play music, probably, since she’s a jazz pianist. But he’s why I play country. I was fortunate that in the last ten years, he and I really got our shit together. After I hit 18, we’d just butt heads like crazy, for about four years. But we both went through the decision to work on things. When I went through this really bad breakup a few months back, he called every day, cooked me breakfast, we took walks. I miss him a lot.”
As Howie notes, his mother’s musical influence mostly came from her being a musician herself. You could say his musical career began at age 5, when he saw a musical version of Robin Hood with a soundtrack by Roger Miller — and made his mom take him to see it seven times. An attempt to learn to play the soundtrack on piano didn’t take, but Howie was hooked. There were always musicians and instruments around the house, and when Howie sat down behind a drum kit at age 10, he discovered he had a natural affinity for timekeeping.
Stints in a number of rock bands followed, including Finger (in which his bandmates included future Backsliders/Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams guitarist Brad Rice). After Finger broke up, Howie resurfaced as the drummer in June, an indie-rock band in Chapel Hill. June made one very fine album for Beggars Banquet, 1996’s I Am Beautiful, before disintegrating amid long-simmering personal tensions between some of the principal members.
By then, the Two Dollar Pistols were already in progress as a side project. June’s push-pull, rather feminine art-pop was a long away from the Pistols’ bare-knuckles honky-tonk. But I Am Beautiful did show a hint of Howie’s future direction — an album-closing cover of Roger Miller’s “I’ll Pick Up My Heart (And Go Home)”, a duet between Howie and June lead singer Kat Cook.
“I started the Pistols while I was still in June, but June was what paid the rent,” Howie explains. “I wasn’t sure I was ready to give up drumming. But once the Pistols got going, there was no drum gig that was gonna stop that. The pull was just too strong. I’ve not played drums in years. Still got the kit in the house, but I never pull it out anymore. I never miss it, honestly.”
Moving from the back of the stage to the front involved some challenges for Howie, who had never led a band before. Early versions of the Pistols included some of Howie’s old June bandmates and Squirrel Nut Zippers drummer Chris Phillips, but the lineup never remained stable for long. Greg Hawks and former Backsliders guitarist Steve Howell are among the better-known players who passed through the Pistols during their first four years of existence.
The Pistols made some fine recordings, including 1998’s live Step Right Up! and a seven-song duet disc with Tift Merritt in 1999. But having to work around his bandmates’ day jobs and commitments to other bands took a toll on Howie. Keeping a band together long enough to write, develop, record and tour with a set of songs was nearly impossible, and the Pistols could never sustain any momentum.
Howie accepts a lot of the blame for the personnel instability. “I never wanted this revolving door, but I wasn’t used to leading a band,” he acknowledges. “So I’m sure a lot of it was my fault, just from not knowing how to do this. In retrospect, it’s not surprising because things just seem to happen later with me. I didn’t really calm down until I was about 30, so it follows that it would take me a while to get the hang of leading a band.”
The current lineup of guitarist Scott McCall, bassist Neil Spaulding and drummer Mark Weaver solidified a couple years ago. Howie says he couldn’t be happier with his band, and he even calls McCall his “musical soulmate” (although he cringes as soon as he says it).
“The last couple of years have not been easy,” Howie says. “But I’ve been able to finally make the record I dreamed about. So if everything else is falling apart, I can take it; grist for the mill. If I’m only allowed one thing to work, Two Dollar Pistols is what I want. It’s my life, I’ve given up a lot for this band. It’s almost like God saying, ‘All right, I’ll let this one thing go OK for a while.'”