They travel in a 1949 Flexible bus. Their stage attire is pure Hank Thompson, circa 1955. But to think of Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys as 1990′s resurgence of Sha-Na-Na-ism would be a profound mistake.
“We don’t really think about it,” says Robert Williams, aka Big Sandy, of the vintage trappings. “Our tastes have just drifted that way. It keeps that spirit of what we’re doing. …. The bus is a symbol.”
And just what is it they’re doing? Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys are one of the hottest extensions of the country tradition exemplified by Lefty Frizzell, Faron Young, Leon McAuliffe and Hank Thompson. The band’s mentor and producer, Dave Alvin, describes them as “somewhere between country swing and hillbilly bop.”
The band evolved from an earlier incarnation, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Trio, a Gene Vincent/Burnette Brothers-influenced rockabilly quartet that included current Fly-Rite bassist Wally Hersom. With the addition of drummer Bobby Trimble, steel guitarist Lee Jeffriess and guitarist Ashley Kingman, the band moved toward their present sound.
Jumping from 6 to 6, the band’s first Hightone release, was recorded in 1994. The material on this album is somewhat reminiscent of Bill Haley’s pre-Comet ensemble, The Saddlemen. Tracks such as the title cut, “Who, Tell Me Who?”, and “Hi-billy Music” simply rock out. But the cover of Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues From Waitin’ ” and Sandy’s “This Heart of Mine” foreshadow the drift towards the rural route. “There was some vestige of rockabilly left,” reflects Sandy, the group’s lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and songwriter. “It was a transitional period.”
The band’s latest Hightone offering, Swingin’ West, as the title would suggest, “swings” as opposed to “rocks” its way through 15 tracks. As if following a river to its source, Big Sandy is paddling upstream to the headwaters of country music. “We’re all following the same river,” Sandy suggests, “but there’s these little tributaries, and each one of us is into a little bit different aspect of it.”
Some of the band members’ diverse influences are evident on both recordings. For example, Jeffriess’ interest in jazz and bebop shows clearly in his solos or in compositions such as “Barnyard Beatnik”. Sandy, meanwhile, likes the “straight country” sound, particularly vocalists such as Frizzell, Young, George Jones and Ray Price.
Drummer Trimble has greatly influenced the band’s swing tendencies. “He’s into the big-band sound,” Sandy says. “He’s listening to some of the things that the country players of the ’50s were into.”
Listening to the influences of their country mentors is fundamental to the Fly-Rite collective philosophy. “We try not to copy what they were doing,” explains Sandy, “but to listen to some of their influences, hoping that brings us closer to what it was all about.”
The band’s association with Alvin has been productive. “He got us the Hightone deal,” says Sandy. “Dave was coming to our shows regularly, hanging out and paying attention. He approached us about wanting to make a record.”
According to Sandy, Alvin is an unobtrusive producer and is very sympathetic to their general direction. “Because we were not completely comfortable in the studio,” Sandy continues, “he was very good about putting us all at ease and getting the best performance.”
Given the choice, however, Sandy and the boys might try more closely to re-create some of the classic sounds they so admire, perhaps recording in mono with vintage tube equipment. “If we did it the way we’d like, it might sound strange to most ears,” Sandy proposes.
Although Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys have two great albums in the can, their true talent is in live performance. The band has been drawing fans in cities from Austin to New York, Seattle to Nashville. Most often, the dance floor is crowded. Says Sandy, “That’s where we do best — where there’s a good dance floor and there’s people out there swinging. I don’t want it to be just that, though. For those people hanging out, paying attention, I want to have something for them, too.”
Apparently, Big Sandy offers much to many. Sandy sees a diverse range in the band-following: from silver-haired two-steppers to punk-rock kids; from country newcomers to longtime traditional experts who may have once cut the rug to Hank Thompson himself. “Playing to someone who’s never heard it before can be challenging,” muses Sandy. “They don’t have any preconceived ideas. …. If they dig it, then they dig it! But it’s also gratifying to play for someone who really knows the music well, and they like it too.”
Though Sandy hears little of interest in the current crop of commercial country artists, he’s optimistic. “There’s a good trend happening,” he says, “an underground movement …. rediscovering some forgotten things. I hope things continue along that way.”
Like some other alternative-country artists, Big Sandy has found an unexpected interest from the Nashville establishment. On a recent tour stop there, The Nashville Network taped and interviewed the band. “They aired a nice piece,” Sandy recalled. “After the show, they invited us to WSN, the station that broadcasts the Grand Ole Opry, to play live. We’d played on air before, but this was WSN! That was really cool.”
Playing the flagship station of the Opry may have been a special treat for the band, but it made perfect sense. Like the country greats from whom they’ve learned a thing or two, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys deserved to be there.