Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, in the heart of London, Ashley Kingman was cultivating similar interests.
“In my early teens I liked a bit of everything — a few punk records, some ska records, some ’50s sort of rock ‘n’ roll — Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent. That sort of thing,” he recalls. “My older sister was a punk — like one of them ’78, ’77 sort of punks. She’s older than me and it was through her that I got me a bit of an interest in it, because in them days punk wasn’t like Rancid where it definitely had a punk image. I always found in hindsight that punk was in its own way a retro thing. It’s like they looked to the past for their influences.”
The early ’80s found a full-on rockabilly renaissance blossoming in the U.K. Though teddy boys had been around since the ’50s, punk rock infused the scene with new energy. The Stray Cats’ self-titled U.K. debut hit the streets in 1981, and the New York trio’s cool cat couture made as much of an impact as its sound. Photographer Pennie Smith’s The Clash: Before & After was published in 1980, and the lavish black-and-white travelogue of the Clash on tour in America featured band members resplendent in vintage attire, underscoring the strains of vintage American rock that wafted through tunes such as “Brand New Cadillac” and “Wrong ‘Em Boyo.” Between such worldly developments, his sister’s musical interests and a teddy boy buddy with a massive record collection, Kingman was hooked.
“That’s where I’d first really seen American ’50s clothes,” he says of Smith’s Clash book. “I was probably about 13, 14 and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s what I want to wear.’ It [went along] with the change from when you’re a little kid and you become a teenager. It’s all a big wide world and I was into everything, and then slowly I started drifting more and more into the rockabilly thing over the space of a couple of years, and then before you know it you’re into it as music as well as all the other stuff that goes with it.”
By the end of the ’80s, Kingman was playing with an outfit called Red Hot And Blue that did all right, gigging and garnering local press, but the heyday of rockabilly in London was drawing to a close. Kingman says the burgeoning electronic dance/rave scene took a big toll on the roots scene in London, drawing many young people away from a smattering of scenes and unifying them under a techno groove.
“If you remember, there was skinheads, rockabillies, casuals, this, that and the other, and then by 1991-92 it was just youth,” he recollects with faintly wistful air. With his interest in music as a vocation waning, he and his girlfriend set off on a trip around the world that took them to India, Japan and finally the U.S., where he discovered that the music he loved was alive and thriving.
“I’m over here and I’m reading the L.A. Weekly and it’s got [a listing for] ‘Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Trio — rockabilly’ and I thought, ‘Oh, this should be entertaining.’ I thought it’d be a Stray Cats kind of thing and I’d gone down there [to the club], and there’s an amazing drummer, this big Mexican guy singing with a beautiful voice, Buddy Holly on bass and a guitar player who was like Merle Travis, Jimmy Bryant and Cliff Gallups all rolled into one guy, with an old tone but making it sound relevant. It didn’t sound like the guy was copying records. He was making it happen there and then in front of you.”
Inspired, Kingman struck up a conversation with the musicians, and thus began a beautiful friendship. They crossed paths again when Williams and company went to England and Europe later that year. Kingman introduced the band to its future steel guitar player, Lee Jeffriess, who shortly thereafter moved to New Orleans and settled into a combo with pianist Carl “Sonny” Leyland. A fateful 1992 gig in Austin, Texas, that featured Leyland and Big Sandy led both Leyland and Jeffriess to become Fly-Rite Boys. In 1993, Kingman made a trans-Atlantic leap of faith, moved to California and joined the band himself.
Playing traditional music that’s highly stylized is easy. In recent years Orange County has produced a bumper crop of fashionable young bands who have mastered the superficial elements of ska, punk and swing. Playing traditional, highly stylized music well is another matter. Not only does it depend on mastering techniques such as fingerpicking and slap bass, but it requires the ability to whip up a vibrant band dynamic and write material that’s challenging without straying too far off the genre’s path.
“At one point I started to find it very limiting,” Williams confesses. “That’s why I think lately I’ve been trying to open it up a little more. Maybe to an outsider it might not seem like it, but I think there’s a lot of different musical styles we’re drawing from.
“It used to be where we were trying to imitate a specific sound, and I look back now and it seems kind of silly. Somebody would come up with an idea for a song and another band member would say, ‘Nah, they wouldn’t have done a song like this.’ I don’t want any of that anymore. I want it to be free. That’s the spirit that set the mood originally for this music to be created. If you listen to some of our earlier records, I think we’re worlds away now musically than we were before.”