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By Jon Solomon
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Jim Dalton can tell that his band, the Railbenders, are growing more popular with each show they play. It's as clear as the hats on the heads of the fans who show up, in greater numbers each time, to hear them.
"A lot of people have come up to me recently and said we're giving them an excuse to wear their cowboy hats out in public," says Dalton.
Considering that the Railbenders (vocalist/guitarist Dalton, lead guitarist Chris Flynn, bassist Tyson Murray and drummer Gordon Beesley) play straight-no-chaser country, those are welcome testimonials. Over the past year, the 'Benders have been earning the respect of country-loving fans who normally toil on the fringes of the area music scene. The band has an unofficial home at the Lincoln's Roadhouse near the University of Denver (the former location of the Washington Street Exit), where the mix of blue-collar types, bikers and DU students now looks to the Railbenders for frequent doses of traditional twang. But the band is also expanding its reach to other area clubs, bringing with it bent variations on the music that made Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe famous.
That Dalton is now playing tunes and writing songs that recall those artists is more than a little surprising to him.
"It's funny," he says. "Country is what I rebelled against as a kid. I didn't like it a bit. I used to have arguments with my dad about it. Now it's all I want to listen to. I'm a country freak."
Of course, Dalton's not the first rocker to make the shift to country music. As with his predecessors, his reasons for doing so include the nostalgic appeal of the music. But beyond that, he says, his zeal is the result of having a few years of experience under his belt.
"I think when you're younger, you don't understand it," Dalton says of country music. Young people, he notes, "listen more for the energy rather than the melody of the songs and the stories in the songs. They want it hard, loud and fast, to have a good time and mosh."
Those factors, he surmises, often rule out country as a music option among the younger, rock-loving set, a demographic he was a member of while growing up in Loveland. The music scene there, he says, "was non-existent," subsisting primarily on the rock bands led by the town's reigning guitar hero, Dave Beegle. Dalton eventually became a guitarist himself and began handling guitar chores for area rock bands. Imagining a land of greater opportunity, he moved to California, eventually returning to Denver in 1988.
For a few years, Dalton played guitar in the Simpletones, a local alternative rock band. He met Tyson Murray a couple of years ago, when the two played in a local swing act called the Shaken Martinis. When the swing phenomenon began to peter out in Denver, Dalton and Murray (who once played slap bass with the Throttlemen) began indulging their love for country music. The current lineup was secured a few months ago, when the group landed ex-Brethren Fast drummer Gordon Beesley and Chris Flynn, a guitar ace who's played in mainstream country bands around town.
The group's collective efforts can be heard on Southbound, its debut release. Recorded at the Time Capsule in Lakewood, the disc is an impressive collection of '70s-era country tunes (some of which received lyrical help from Jim Valentine, a friend from Pueblo) that should appeal to fans of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and other contemporary torchbearers. "SouthBound" is an open-prairie "Ghost Riders"-ish tune built on minor chords and stinging slide guitar from Flynn. Dalton, who handles vocals on most of the record, sings the tune in a neighborly baritone better suited to whiskey sippin' and contemplation than hard drinkin' and hell-raisin'. His voice is a cross between that of Junior Brown and some Western-swing crooner. What he lacks in technical terms he makes up for with a comfortable, buddy-at-the-bar lack of pretense: "I have the range of a BB gun," Dalton says of his pipes.
"Lonesome Train" is a choice weeper highlighted by Dalton's oaken vocals, tear-jerking guitar from Flynn and just enough momentum from Murray and Beesley to hold it all together. "Texas Sun" features some hot Luther Perkins-like picking over a solid train beat from Beesley, while "Whiskey Saturday Night" is crowd-pleasing country with a hooky sing-along chorus. "Dead Man's Walk" takes things down several beats per minute in an instrumental sweetened by Duane Eddy-style string bends and Ventures-ish, Mexican-flavored picking.
These assets are contrasted by just a few shortcomings. At times, the band's playing on the disc, which was recorded last September, fails to present the commanding tightness that has come to characterize the Railbenders' live show, something Dalton attributes to in-the-studio jitters. Several of Southbound tunes ("Whiskey Drinking Man," "Minus One") are less-than-inspired compositions that come across a shade simplistic and underdeveloped. "Breakneck Speed," a rocker in the Reverend Horton Heat vein, sports a dated racing-with-the-devil story line that might please the vintage-minded hot-rod set but sounds mighty awkward in the year 2001. Overall, though, these shortcomings don't detract from the fact that Southbound is a fine little record. Besides, Dalton says, he's not bothered by the notion that some of the album's themes sound a shade familiar.
"There's a little bit of truth in those songs," he says. "We're not going to [not] write about them because they've been done before." Plus, he notes, the practices of drinking to exaltation, dealing with heartbreak, and drag racing one's youth away "happen again and again through generations; they're timeless for a lot of people. You can listen to a song from 1955 and relate to it today. Yeah, it's been done before, but it fits what we're doing."
There's one cut on Southbound that has definitely not been done before, and it may be the recording's finest moment: The Railbenders transform Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" from a metal man's anthem into a heartfelt ode that plays cleverly on the band's moniker. Somehow, the reworked cover manages to be hilarious and poignant at the same time. When Dalton muses, "Maybe it's not too late/To learn how to love and forget how to hate," Ozzy's original lyrics seem like the words of some new-age optimist instead of a bat-biting shrieker. In the hands of the Railbenders, the song's chorus sounds as if it were written exclusively for cowboys. And when its signature guitar riff reappears here in sweet Texas tones, it's a beautiful, head-spinning Black-Sabbath-meets-Bakersfield moment.
Dalton got the idea to use the song when he heard it on his car radio after a band rehearsal. Struck by its C&W potential, he got home, reworked the chords into trad form and later laid it on his mates. The band debuted the tune while opening a show for the Derailers, and the response it received was encouraging. "The crowd started cheering, [and] when we got to the chorus, they were screaming," Dalton recalls. "We knew that was one that would work."
Southboundwas originally released through MP3.com because the band didn't have the funds to reproduce it in bulk. (MP3 allows users to sell copies on a per-order basis, splitting profits with its artists.) Via that Internet music site (and their own, railbenders.com), the group sold about a hundred copies to listeners around the United States and in such seemingly twang-free locales as Turkey and Japan. This month the Railbenders are celebrating the official release of the CD on the Big Bender label, a new imprint from Loveland's Hapi Skratch outfit.
Dalton and his mates join a slowly growing roster of countrified bands springing up in the Denver area, a list that includes Halden Wofford & the Hi Beams and the up-and-coming Honkytonk Hangovers. The emergence of these bands, and a small but loyal audience eager to support them, is encouraging news to the 'Benders. "There's definitely a fan base for it here," Dalton notes. Could it be that there's a honky-tonk renaissance under way in town? Is wearing a ten-gallon hat about to replace the rave and the lindy hop as the thing to do in Denver when you're not dead?
"I sure hope so," Dalton says. "We need more music for the little guy."
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