Driving across Arizona at night with the thumping, twanging sound of Flathead in your stereo, it’s easy to imagine your Ford Escort or Mitsubishi Mirage magically transforming into some legendary 18-wheeler — the Phantom 309, the Giddyup Go — tearing up the interstate. The desert and the highway can play tricks on you. And so can this music.
Flathead is a trio of 40ish Arizonans: guitarist Greg Swanholm, drummer Vince Ramirez and bass player Kevin Daly. Chief songwriter Swanholm sings lead on most cuts, backed by Ramirez’s hillbilly harmonies. Much of the soundtrack to Swanholm’s boyhood was provided by his late father’s galaxy of classic country. “He had an awesome eight-track collection,” Swanholm recalls. “He liked hard-boiled country: Johnny Paycheck, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens. But his main man was Johnny Cash. This is the music he always took when we’d go to the lake or out huntin’.”
Swanholm didn’t get a hankering to start playing music himself until he was in his early 20s. “I started going out and hearing these great local bands — the Varmints, the Geezers. Kevin [Daly] was in The Geezers.” Swanholm speaks about the early ’80s Phoenix/Tempe roots and rockabilly scene with the reverence early punk-era New Yorkers talk about CBGB. But he went off to college in Tucson and by the time he returned in 1988, that scene had passed.
In ’92 he hooked up with Ramirez, a Kansas native with a background in Chicano punk bands. At first the duo played mainly covers (Cash, Louvin Brothers) and strange songs from unknown bluegrass bands who specialized in truck drivin’ tunes. “I’d buy these tapes at truck stops,” Swanholm said. “That’s about the only place you could find them. The tray cards for the cassettes would be hand-typed. We started to emulate that sound.”
By 1993 Flathead became a trio with the addition of Ruth Wilson on bass. The band released its self-titled debut in 1996; shortly thereafter, Bloodshot Records asked Flathead to contribute to its ’97 compilation Straight Outta Boone County, which consisted of old country songs performed by Robbie Fulks, Whiskeytown, the Waco Brothers and others. “We did ‘Run Mountain’, a song by J.E. Mainer, which was perfect because it sounded like us anyway,” Swanholm says.
In the wake of this attention, Wilson left and the band briefly dissolved. But after hooking up with old Geezer Daly, they returned. This year Flathead released its second album, Play The Good One. True to form, the lion’s share of the tunes are truckers-eye views of modern life. The group is now lining up material for its third album, which Swanholm says will have less songs dealing with diesel, though it will retain the basic chunka-chunka Flathead sound.