There was a crazy swinging sound blowing in from the West Coast back in the '40s. Artists such as Hank Penny, Bob Wills, and Spade Cooley were collectively destroying the boundaries between musical genres. The music they made had a hillbilly heart, to be sure, but you couldn't call it country: The boys in the band might get insulted, pack up their axes, and call it a night. It was jazz. It was jump blues. It was good-timing dance-hall swing. And with its obsessive lyrical focus on nightlife, heartache, troublesome women, and wide-open spaces, it was honky-tonk to the core. Anaheim's retro-rockers Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys continue the popular West Coast practice of making eclectic, genre-bending hillbilly music that manages to be traditional in spite of itself. Big Sandy's mix includes not only western swing but also elements of rockabilly, surf, R&B, doo-wop, Cajun music, and crooner-era pop. But unlike so many of the tongue-in-cheek hat bands that cropped up in the '90s, hell-bent on mocking traditional country form, the Fly-Rite boys are respectful of their elders, every number an homage to artists such as Ray Charles, Marty Robbins, and Bob Wills, artists who knew the value of giving an audience everything. You almost had to drag them off the stage.
"I guess some people don't understand," says Robert "Big Sandy" Williams of the way some fans and writers have interpreted his band's antique look and old-school sound. "Or they focus on the wrong thing. It's not about being retro or whatever. It's about being timeless." Still, when the Fly-Rite Boys' steel player Jimmy Roy lays down a lick on his vintage Sho-Bud (serial number 2), a piece of equipment once owned and played by Faron Young sideman Ben Keith, it's hard to deny that this band is a touchstone to the past.
"I'm a romantic," Williams says. "I like those romantic elements of the older styles that are missing from today's music: songs about love, hate, relationships, heartache, women. Most of my songs are about women. That's what moves me."
For being so starry-eyed Williams is very much a realist about his measure of fame. Having begun his career as a musician in the late '80s, he's seen several roots revivals spring up and die out before they could ever evolve into a national craze.
"It comes and goes in waves," Williams says of the market for traditional music. "It will be really popular and maybe somebody will say, 'Man, I don't know, I think something is going to happen,' and then it will all die down again. So if business picks up, hurrah, but if not, we still get by and we're having a great time along the way. We're going to play the Grand Ole Opry, and then we are going to be in Memphis."
Appearing on the Grand Ole Opry is something Williams is excited about for obvious reasons. "Maybe the Opry isn't what it used to be," he says. "But being brought up on stage by Porter Wagoner, everything is in slow motion. It's like some kind of hazy dream."
Visiting Memphis is meaningful for another, equally obvious reason. "As a kid, the first musician who ever moved me was Elvis," says Williams. "I have a lot of wonderful musical memories of him. I remember I just thought, Wow, he's so cool. I was caught up in the image. But when I got older, I wanted to know more about his influences. And that's when I discovered all this beautiful music. The country, the gospel, the wonderful R&B. Just give me a drink and a George Jones record and I'm okay."
One of the main characteristics the Fly-Rite Boys have stolen from such heroes as Elvis, Faron Young, and Marty Robbins is the ability to make everything they do look effortless.
"Well, I hope we don't make it look too easy," Williams says. "We're going to have to kick ourselves a little bit. You know, we've been trying to put a little extra into it because maybe it's not such a good idea to be laid-back all the time." No sooner has he said this than he admits that his famously charismatic band is made up of geeks who are having too much fun to be bothered with an abundance of seriousness.
"Before anything else, we are all fans of the kind of music we play," Williams says. "But sometimes we'll be up on stage playing and goofing off and I look around and know that any one of us would rather be out looking for records in a thrift store."
Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys
with Two Tons of Steel
Sunday, June 29th
The Hi-Tone CafÇ