On a Wing and a Prayer
It's a crisp Friday afternoon at the Circle-A Ranch, the working-class home and headquarters of local twanglers Mr. Tree and the Wingnuts. Soapy Argyle, singer/songwriter/ guitarist for the act, sits on his back porch and sips chilly cans of Milwaukee's Best with drummer Shawn 4-On ("You know, like 'four on the floor,'" he says). As the men kick back and discuss the origins of their group (which also includes standup bassist and namesake Mr. Tree), they present a visitor with a can of something other than beer that they hope will help put their start in perspective. The can is wrapped with a hand-drawn label that reads "Mr. Tree and the Wingnuts' Refried Beans."
"This music stuff was just a hobby, like collecting Playboys or something," says Argyle, who sports a loose knit cap, wire-rimmed glasses and the address of a local Mexican restaurant inked onto the back of his hand. "Then we decided to become an entrepreneurial partnership, and we got this bean business going." He looks down at the can and rolls it in his hands. "But the company went out of business the day after we made our first batch of beans." What happened? "Mr. Tree's uncle down in Lafayette had a bean plant," 4-On reveals, "and the employees would can our beans on the weekends. But we were pretty much bastards and didn't know what we were doing, and the workers didn't like us. It turned out some employees were defecating in the cans." What? "They shit in the beans," Argyle says, "and the company went under. We said, 'Screw this, let's make a band.'"
As band-birth stories go, this is surely one of the more unusual, and one that may or may not be true. As the affable Argyle and 4-On drain another round of beers, it becomes clear that they spin more tales than the squirrels digging in the Circle-A's garden of wintered-over Swiss chard. "I try out for the Denver Nuggets every year," he says earnestly. "Last year I tried out as a center and this year I tried out as a two-guard. But my three-pointer wasn't hitting the rim, and they all kind of laughed at me." Soon, much like the homemade mobile that spins above his cap -- a folk-art contraption fashioned from a bike reflector, an oven knob and a kitchen spatula -- Argyle is left flapping in the breeze as his story unravels faster than a Nuggets' fourth-quarter lead. The two giggle like little kids.
Some may laugh at the Wingnuts' musical efforts as well, but only for the right reasons. The 'Nuts play an amalgamation of roots music they call "doghouse rock," and the band may well be the most entertaining act in Denver. "We got the doghouse bass, and we got rock," Argyle says, elaborating on his band's descriptive handle. "It ain't rockabilly, because it ain't true to all the cliches and what have you. And it ain't garage rock, because we got a doghouse bass." Argyle speaks in clean, rural tones and comes across like some country cousin. But he's way too wry for bumpkin status and, like any good comic, there's a dual meaning to just about everything that slips from his lips. "What does 'doghouse' imply?" he asks. "It implies that you've been cheating and you're back out in the yard. Well, that's how it is with us, because we don't really fit in with all the hip things of rock. And we play clubs where they pair us with these bands that just don't fit with us, because there's nobody like us in town." Not that the Wingnuts are unhappy with their out-in-the-yard status. "Our goal," he says, "is to keep it loose and be able to appeal to little kids and old people. And drunk people, too. And drunk little kids."
All of these demographic groups should be able to enjoy the Wingnuts' debut CD, Get Your Beans. The band's six-song release is a primal gem that fuses hillbilly mayhem, careening rock energy and countrified prose into one righteous whole. The band conjures up its psycho-cornabilly in reckless fashion, too, rumbling down musical dirt roads like a drunken road crew at quitting time. Adding to the recording's rawhide bliss is its two-mikes-and-a-prayer sound that will thrill fans of vintage '50s pre-rock. The disc's opening cut, "I Love Trees," is whoop-it-up garage-a-billy, a unique tale of love. When the singer's crooked-toothed, knock-kneed lover moves to the city, he sets about felling the timber where he'd carved a heart and the pair's initials. "I chopped that wood and it felt so good/I think that I'm about," the singer brays, "to head into the city and chop down your damn house." "It All Looks Like Roses" features a clever counterpoint lyric ("When your eyes are red") and a Chuck Berry-meets-Charlie Feathers feel filled with dark images paired with a chorus of fervent requests for coffee, white bread and omelettes. It's wonderful, oddball stuff, with the screaming, string-mashing Argyle starring as the proverbial Mile High madman. "Valentine's Day" sounds like the Flat Duo Jets fronted by some Carolina tobacco farmer, a song that swings hard (thanks to the solid playing from Tree and 4-On) as Argyle hollers about barroom brawls and swilling gasoline before stumbling through another of his bumper-car solos.
"Bought My Baby" is a country creeper that recalls Hasil Adkins or Harmonica Frank, while "We're the Wingnuts" is a band anthem marked by layers of hilarious hootin' and hollerin' and more Stratocaster raunch from Argyle. "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free" closes the CD in gloriously sloppy fashion with a guitar solo more mashed than Grandma's turnips. Overall, the recording is a perfect collision of three-chord rock and hilarious hillbilly bomp. Its only flaw is that it's too darn short. For lovers of Norton Records-style grunge and the chicken-fried joy of Southern Culture on the Skids, this CD is a six-pack of greasy fun.
Argyle cites the Skids as a touchstone of sorts and says seeing the band live a couple of years ago convinced him to pursue his own redneck muse. Thrown into his musical stew is the classic country of artists such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and a shot of punk and '60s rock. The wordsmithing of his country heroes, Argyle says, has fueled his love for tunes rife with unexpected lyrical themes and content. "You've gotta have a good title in a country song," he says. "But then the best thing is when you take that idea and you put it on this generic rock-riff chord progression, with drumbeats that are alien to country. See, we're mixing them together and -- bammo -- what've you got? A rock song that's got lyrics that aren't dumb. 'I Thought My Tongue Was in My Cheek, But My Foot Was in My Mouth,' that's a good example."
This collective wit infuses the trio's marketing efforts as well. The group's monthly newsletter (sign up for it at www.mrtreeandthewingnuts.com) features a contest to win a date with Mr. Tree's bass. The lucky winners will enjoy "A romantic evening for two at Club 404, followed by a sexy ride up Lincoln Street in the '0' bus." Entrants are to submit a 500-word essay on "why nuts are special." The men carry this giddiness to the stage, too, with a penchant for honoring requests for songs they're unfamiliar with. "It's so fun to play songs you've never heard before or songs you've never played," 4-On gushes, before he and Argyle recount a string of such requests that stretches from metal anthems and C&W obscurities to a recent Doors medley. "Ooh, I remember that one," giggles 4-On, who works as a teacher's assistant at a Capitol Hill elementary school. "It was awful. It was beautiful." The band also has a habit of giving away copies of its new CD at shows, a gesture that hasn't been appreciated by every recipient. At least one copy of the disc has shown up in the bathroom sink after a gig, and a few have appeared in a bin at an area music store. "It's so funny," Argyle chuckles. "We gave it to somebody, they sold it to the store for more than it cost us to make it, and now the store's selling it for more than we're selling at that store."
Not that the boys are bemoaning their musical situation. They're currently flushing out plans to play out more often, as well as assembling tunes for a full-length followup to Beans, tentatively titled Go Bananas. The band plans to promote it by throwing fresh Chiquitas to unsuspecting Denverites from a gleaming yellow Volkswagen bus. ("That one's totally legit," 4-On swears.) In the meantime, they're pondering the mystery of a fan who's been sending semi-pornographic postcards to the Circle-A Ranch.
"There's a lot of cool things about being in a band. You get all these cool postcards," Argyle says, shuffling the stack of cards. "You meet cool people, and you can meet girlfriends -- in theory," he says. "I work in a record shop, and when I take my lunch break, I go to this sandwich shop and there are these high school guys there. And I always imagine to myself that if I was these guys, and I knew that the guy coming into the store was a rock and roller and played in a band, I would think that was the coolest thing. I'd think, 'This guy's rocking.' And that makes me feel good, thinking they'd be excited if they knew I was a rock and roller. That's a positive, right?"
For some folks, such little victories are hardly the stuff dreams are made of. Or the kind of accomplishments that make parents beam. But for the Wingnuts, they are reason enough to keep moving their cans of refried beans. "We're keeping the band together so we can get rid of all the beans," 4-On says, noting that the allegedly tainted cans are now doled out as collectibles, not foodstuffs. And while the band's legume enterprise isn't reaping any profits, its musical spinoff venture is. "We finished a set the other night, " Argyle recalls, "and this guy was drunk as hell, completely getting off on the band. And on one hand, we weren't sure we wanted to talk to him, but on the other, we were thinking, 'Wow, somebody in this bar loves us, and he's gonna go home and remember us for at least five or six minutes, and tomorrow, maybe he'll tell all of his buddies about us. See, one guy in a bar can make you feel like a rock star because he loves you. And we know we're not all that -- and he knows it, too. But for that moment, he thinks we're something else."
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