“So, I just want to know who the audience is here — this is for No Dep?,” queries Rolling Hayseeds founder Kevin Karg as he and bandmate Rich Kaufmann settle in for a couple of hours of caffeine-fueled conversation. I explain that it’s for a section titled Town & Country, which documents what’s happening regionally in the ever-expanding universe of alt.country.
“One of my favorite records is Town & Country, that Rave-Ups record,” Karg responds quickly. “Our very first set had a Rave-Ups cover,” interjects Kaufmann. Karg plays the song back in his mind, singing/talking through a couple of lines before recalling the title, “By The Way”.
That reference point alone belies a couple of things you should know about the Rolling Hayseeds. First, Karg and Kaufmann have a penchant for the brand of catchy rural pop exemplified by the Rave-Ups and current purveyors the Honeydogs. Second, the Hayseeds have been at this for quite some time now and are one of the few bands around who predate the recent ND uprising.
The pair hooked up in 1990 after their respective bands fell apart. Karg had been kicking around locally with the Fjord Rangers (“twang-meets-The Jam,” he says), while Kaufmann enjoyed star status in Philly fronting local punk legends Electric Love Muffin. But both shared the desire to go in a decidedly country direction.
Karg grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, where country radio dominates the dial and, by default, your attention. A steady diet of Waylon Jennings and roots bands such as the Beat Farmers and Dash Rip Rock helped shape his musical vision.
Kaufmann’s exposure to the genre, however, came by way of an old roommate who turned him on to the originators. “I was lucky enough to live with this guy — did you ever get that Merle Haggard box on Capitol, or the Roger Miller box? — the liner notes are by a guy named Dan Cooper. He was my roommate,” Kaufmann recalls of the writer who now works for the Country Music Foundation. “He heard me playing a Lone Justice record, and he brings up, like, Ray Price’s Greatest Hits, and ‘Invitation To The Blues’ was like an epiphany. Then he brings up a Webb Pierce record, a Mel Tillis record, a Roger Miller record; he had an incredible collection and he just made me tapes of this stuff. Within weeks I was drivin’ my band crazy.”
Thus began Kaufmann’s immersion into the history of country music. When Karg extended an invitation to join his upstart country band, Kaufmann gladly accepted. There was no thought or concern given to what Philly clubgoers would make of the ensemble. Instead, they just reveled in the moment.
“When we started the band, we talked about how many people we’d run into who said that they loved Merle Haggard,” Kaufmann said. “We figured if we try to do it as straight and pure as possible, people would either enjoy it for the novelty, or the real fans will be into it for what it is.
“It was almost dress-up at times, but we were very serious about it. We really thought about how we wanted it to sound; I’d say I wanted this song to sound like Roger Miller circa 1964. It was a good exercise to get into then, but now we really don’t think about it. The influences are always there, but the sound can evolve on its own.”
In 1994, the band felt it had “evolved” to the point that it was time to commit some of its original material to tape, enlisting former Scruffy the Cat leader Charlie Chesterman as producer. But while the songs were there, the group really wasn’t. Between nightmarish band politics and a lack of preproduction, it was a wonder they left the studio with eight finished tracks. “One thing I learned from that whole experience is that you don’t try to go in and record a whole album unless you have a record label giving you money,” Kaufmann said. “Now we try to do it in two to three song increments, record when we feel good about the songs and get them just right.”
That’s exactly what the band did last summer when they entered a Philly studio with producer George Manney and cut a pair of new originals that are arguably the band’s strongest to date. Karg and Kaufmann wasted no time in pressing up those two tracks (along with a cover of Kevin Welch’s “I Came Straight To You” with Karg on vocals) as a promotional CD single. The songs, bitter-but-beautiful tandem love letters titled “Dead Of Night” and “Don’t You Know? Don’t You Even Care?”, garnered airplay locally on AAA station WXPN and alternative-slanted WDRE, respectively.
It also gave the Hayseeds enough material to flesh out their debut album, Tangled Up In You. Although not as raucous as the band’s live shows, the record is a stellar showcase for principal songwriter and vocalist Kaufmann’s homey, back-porch pop-drawl and Karg’s adept, sympathetic string work. And while Kaufmann may not have the most perfectly pitched voice, it is definitely one of the most real. Whether it’s the honky-tonk weeper “Red, White & Blue” or the unabashedly-in-love declaration of the title track, heart is worn on proverbial sleeve, providing an emotional depth that few vocalists seem keen on publicly displaying.
Karg brings his hard-country aesthetic to a trio of tracks, and flat-out nails the vocal on “This Time Yesterday”. The cut, penned by since-departed drummer Ralph Johnson, is one of the album’s strongest performances, a slice of pure and classic country. And with a co-write from Chesterman, he also provides the record its heaviest rockin’ in “Without You”, reinforcing his affectation for late ’80s/early ’90s country rock.
With a positive studio experience now under their belt, the guys are itching to return. Next time they’ll probably have another voice in the mix: Dorothea Haug, who provided background vocals on a handful of the album’s cuts, has become a full-time Hayseed and now shares center stage for a few songs each gig.
“The vision in my mind is like if Ronstadt had stayed with the Eagles and they all shared lead vocals, as if she were just another member of the band,” likens Karg. “Or maybe like those early Asleep At The Wheel records,” throws in Kaufmann. True to their respective influences.