X-angels – Mamas, don’t let your cowboys grow up to be exes
Long before anyone came up with the concept of alt-country, whatever that is, there was country-rock, whatever that was. A quarter-century ago, country-rock meant long-haired hippiebilly boys reconnecting with the honky-tonk/bluegrass half of the original rock ‘n’ roll equation.
And so in 1974, inspired by the hip-country leanings of ’60s folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and the Byrds, singer-songwriter Tom McGriff formed the original edition of the Cowboy Angels. The band — which featured John Bunzow on guitar and vocals, Rich Gooch on bass, and Steve Williams on drums — played Portland’s club circuit for a few years in the mid-’70s, then checked out about the time the Eagles checked into Hotel California.
McGriff moved to Long Beach, California, where he led a popular new-wave group called the Actors. That band hung together for 10 years, but the elusive record deal never came through, and McGriff wound up moving back to Portland in 1990. He found the original members of the Cowboy Angels still hanging around, older and wiser, but no less ready to rock ‘n’ roll. “We’re what you call veteran players,” says McGriff. “We’ve been around long enough not to be chasing our own tails.”
And so in 1992, the second incarnation of the Cowboy Angels was born. Tom Royer, who worked with McGriff in California, moved to Portland to take over on drums. And when Bunzow headed for Nashville, where he was last seen playing lead guitar with Chris Knight, he was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Steve James, a Southern California refugee who spent most of the ’80s playing rock, country and reggae on the Rocky Mountain circuit out of Missoula, Montana.
Prior to the 1998 release of the group’s third and latest album, Divine River, on Sunset Record Company, they dropped the “cowboy” from the name and became the X-Angels. McGriff says they were tired of being mistaken for a new-country band. “People kept telling us we were different from what they expected,” McGriff says. “The music business likes to slot stuff. We have never looked for a slot. We play for people every weekend, so I know there’s an audience out there. We get something back from the people that keeps us going.”
If the X-Angels are alt-country now, it’s by default. McGriff remains the band’s primary writer, and his Dylan/McGuinn roots come through on Divine River originals such as “At The Back Window” and “Banks Of The River”. James brings in a broader range of instrumental textures, from bluegrass mandolin and lap steel to wicked Sonny Landreth-style slide guitar on the traditional “Oh, The Wind And Rain”. Mark Spangler, the band’s part-time additional guitarist, contributed the straightforward rocker “Great Vibration”.
James, the baby of the band at 39, is itching to take the show on the road. “Every time we play somewhere out of our regular scene, it’s like, ‘Whoa!,'” he says. “We’ve been in the business long enough to know better than to hop in the van and take off. But I really want this band to tour. We’re stuck here in the Northwest.”
The others are willing to take things as they come. “We just kind of do what we do,” says Gooch, who toured nationally in the ’80s with pop band Quarterflash. “If people like it, great. If they don’t like it, we’ll just keep doing it.”