Even the dust smells hot at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic in Luckenbach, Texas. That scent mixes with suntan lotion and sweat and spilled beer, wafts of smoke, damp denim, leather. The Supersuckers play early, so the halter tops haven’t yet begun to come loose, but Willie steps out to help along “Whiskey River” and another song or two. (“It’s in D,” Eddie Spaghetti offers, or maybe it was in G.)
Much of the crowd is young enough that the virtues of a punk rock band from Seattle (by way of Tucson) are not altogether lost on them, but it’s still kinda like serving squid for an hors d’oeuvre at a barbecue. The ‘Suckers are getting used to this, for they’ve been drifting around the edge of country music since playing Farm Aid a couple years back. That’s where they met Willie Nelson, and Steve Earle.
Which has led to a curious stream of music.
It was the Supersuckers’ habit of covering Nelson’s “Whiskey River” that led to last year’s Twisted Willie tribute album (though they recorded “Bloody Mary Morning” for that record). More accurately, it emboldened their manager, Danny Bland, to suggest the idea for the album to Randall Jamail, the producer who also runs Justice Records. And then they toured some with Jesse Dayton, who’s signed to Justice (and who Bland recently began to manage). And they talked Jamail into producing their latest outing, Must’ve Been High.
Earle, meanwhile, seized upon the ‘Suckers as his version of Crazy Horse during a September session in Seattle, recording “New York City” for Earle’s next release, along with an as-yet unfinished EP for the Supersuckers. (Tracks included the Stones’ “Before They Make Me Run”, “Angel Is the Devil”, and “Creepy Jackelope Eye.”). “He hasn’t mixed it yet,” guitarist Ron Heathman laughs in late January, waking up in a Hollywood hotel room. “He’s a busy man. I think he’s doing it, either this week or next week, he told us.”
Must’ve Been High, meanwhile, is set for a late March release. Guest musicians include Dayton, Kelley Deal (Breeders, Kelley Deal 2000), Brian Thomas (of Dayton’s band), Mickey Raphael (of Willie’s band), and Brantley Kearns (of Dwight Yoakam’s band). Ringers, guitarist Dan Bolton calls them.
Ringers, because punk rock may be too hard to sing (and the ‘Suckers have been at this almost 10 years now), but, as many are learning, country ain’t all that easy to play. “It was really cool to work with some ringers,” Bolton says, “to have some people come in who you just totally idolize and respect. I’m confused, personally, about a lot of things that people who came in did on this record, how they do what they did. Like the pedal steel guitar player from Jesse Dayton’s band [Thomas].”
“He’s a phenomenal musician, period,” Eddie says. “He can play anything, and he knows your song in five seconds. What? I didn’t make this song complicated enough for you? What’s the deal? Shouldn’t that turnaround throw you?” He laughs and shakes his head.
Must’ve Been High is not, incidentally, any kind of kin to Ween’s recent stab at country. Yes, the ‘Suckers brought in a few trained session players, but no, there is no smug smirking here like “Piss Up a Rope”, or the rest of Ween’s frat-boy foolishness.
That, as it turns out, was part of what sold Jamail on the project. “I see the awe that they have toward great writers, particularly about Willie,” he says from his office in Houston. “So I knew that they were serious about giving this a try.” And the Supersuckers had the songs to pull it off, though sorting them out took time.
“They sent me a tape of songs that were, really, not very different from a lot of songwriter demos,” Jamail says. “It was a little bit all over the board; a lot of different areas of country music were approached. I called the band and said, ‘Look, I think it’s going to be most credible if we focus on Spaghetti Western. You guys are from Arizona, you’re a very over-the-top theatrical band, and your lead singer’s name is Eddie Spaghetti. Not that all the songs need to come here, but, from a defining standpoint, let’s go to that Western sort of gunfighter sound.’”
“This is by far the most honest record we’ve made, from a lyrical standpoint,” Eddie says. “Every song on the record is a true story. There’s no made-up stories, no ‘Here’s our song about a wrestler.’ Which we will do, it’s not like it’s beneath us. And we’ll do it again, we hope, because that’s the great thing about rock: It’s stupid. When it’s really good, it’s really stupid.”