Denver's Honky Tonk Hangovers play some of the twangiest music this side of Bakersfield, but they purposefully avoid the "C" word when describing their sound lest they scare folks away. That's how far mainstream country music has strayed from its hillbilly roots.
"We don't even advertise ourselves as a country band, because people think of Top 40 country," says the band's founder, Dave Hall. "We call it honky-tonk or roadhouse."
Adds singer/guitarist Jeff Yeary, "Everywhere we go, people say, 'We don't like country, but we like what you're doing.' And it just breaks my heart that we can't say, 'Well, it is country!'"
The Honky Tonk Hangovers
With the Railbenders Friday
Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway
Make no mistake: The Honky Tonk Hangovers play pure, unvarnished, tear-in-your-beer country music, with a little bit of rockabilly thrown in for good measure. After all, what is rockabilly but country music jacked up on amphetamines? "People like Johnny Horton, Don Gibson and Jerry Lee Lewis straddled both worlds," says Yeary, who shares lead vocals with Hall.
On a Monday night at the Skylark Lounge, Denver's hip rockabilly/alt-country bar, the Hangovers -- Hall, Yeary, bassist Donnie Jerome and drummer Brandon Webster -- are packed into one of the watering hole's red-vinyl booths, sipping beers beneath a large poster of Elvis in his Hillbilly Cat days. With songs by Johnny Cash and Dwight Yoakam playing on the jukebox, you'd think you had died and gone to honky-tonk heaven.
"It's our favorite place to play," says Hall, a stocky U.S. Army veteran wearing a black Honky Tonk Hangovers T-shirt. "It's the atmosphere, the crowd that comes in here. They're music listeners."
Tonight, though, the players are off duty. They've come to the Skylark to talk about their debut album, Every Little Honky Tonk (Railbender Records), and their mission to, in Hall's words, "bring real country and hillbilly music back to the forefront of American subculture."
Hall and his bandmates believe there's no better place to start than Denver. "Everybody always talks about Denver being a cowtown," Yeary says, his voice filled with indignation, "but people here want to shy away from that image. I don't understand that. I mean, we were a trading post for cattlemen for years. Why do we want to forget about that?"
For Denverites who want to get in touch with their inner cowtown, the Honky Tonk Hangovers are essential listening. Together for just over two years, the Hangovers are a welcome addition to the city's thriving roots-country scene, which includes such bands as Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams, the Railbenders and Marty Jones and the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys.
Hall, 35, takes credit for getting the band together. He grew up in Peoria, Illinois, but moved to Denver in 1991 after a stint in the Army's elite special-forces division, the Rangers. (That explains his nickname: Ranger Dave.) "I met these other hep cats through motorcycle riding and rockabilly," Hall says of Yeary and Webster, both veterans of Denver's roots-music scene. Bassist Jerome joined the band last April.
Three years ago, Hall, who learned to speak Russian while in the service, found work as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Energy in the field of nuclear non-proliferation. The job requires that he travel periodically to Russian nuclear sites, where he evaluates protective forces -- SWAT teams, accident-response teams -- and gives advice on how to safeguard fissionable material. "It's an effort to decrease the likelihood that the material will fall into the hands of groups like al-Qaeda," Hall says matter-of-factly.
The job, he says, pays well and leaves him with plenty of free time.
"So instead of buying cable TV," he says, "I bought a Telecaster and started studying hard for about a year and a half before I started playing with these guys." Holed up in his apartment, Hall studied instructional videotapes and listened to some of his favorite pickers, including the late Nashville session ace Grady Martin, Pete Anderson (of Yoakam's band), and Brian Hofeldt of the Austin-based retro-country band the Derailers: "He's a huge influence," Hall says of Hofeldt.
"We didn't even know Dave played guitar," says Webster, "and all of a sudden he just comes out of the woodwork -- and he's rippin'!"
Hall envisioned the Hangovers as a five-piece, Bakersfield-style hard-country band, complete with pedal guitar. "But we couldn?t find a steel player," he says. "There's like two or three in town." So Hall decided to learn how to play that instrument, too. He took lessons from the master: Denver legend "Uncle" Dick Meis, who, along with his wife, Lois, can be found most Monday nights at Cricket on the Hill, backing up the inimitable Denver Joe.
"When I first got here," Hall says, "Denver Joe was the only one in Denver playing real, classic country music. We went there every night for years, we were such country lovers."
Live -- and on disc -- the Hangovers are equal parts Hank Williams and Johnny Burnette. Hall switches back and forth between his Telecaster (or a Gretsch hollow-body) and a 1956 Fender lap steel -- sometimes right in the middle of a song. He's got a deep baritone that recalls the great truck-driving songsters Dave Dudley ("Six Days on the Road") and Red Simpson ("I'm a Truck"). Hall also writes many of the group's originals, including a fine driving anthem called "Highway 285" ("The interstate might be quicker, but I don't care/'Cause it's one thing that I've got, and that's time to spare") and the irresistible weeper "Let Me Know" ("If you're leaving I want to know/If you go, my tears will flow/But if you do, take the time and let me know").
Yeary, a tall, lanky 37-year-old who favors vintage Rockmount shirts and plays acoustic rhythm guitar and sings, moves easily from rockabilly ("If Baby Ever Left") to straight-ahead country ("The Honky Tonk Song").
"Jeff's voice is more high-lonesome," Hall says, "and mine is more bottom end, kind of gritty. I cover the truck-driving songs and the Johnny Cash covers."
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Every Little Honky Tonk was produced by Kevin Yost, lead guitarist for the Hi-Beams, and recorded at his home studio in Strasberg, about 25 miles east of Denver. Yost and his wife, Sandy, contribute some backup vocals here and there -- and Meis plays pedal steel on several tracks -- but the overall sound is spare and simple and twangy.
In addition to the Skylark, an obvious venue for the band, the Hangovers have in recent months been gigging at places that aren't exactly known for country, including Herman's Hideaway, Lincoln's Road House and Mr. B's Roadhouse, an Arvada biker bar. ("We turned Herman's into a honky tonk!" Yeary says proudly.) At Mr. B's, the band played a fundraiser for the Hells Angels. "That's one for the scrapbook," Hall says. "We didn't think we'd appeal to a biker crowd, but they danced all night long. (The exact purpose of the fundraiser is a little murky, though Hall speculates that it had something to do with "funerals and legal fees.")
The way Yeary sees it, if he and his bandmates can get a group of Hells Angels out on the dance floor, they must be doing something right.
"We don't want to sound like Nashville -- or at least like modern Nashville," he says. "That's shlock music. Someone like Dwight Yoakam, God love him, he's one of the only guys that is able to capture what country music is all about. And that's what we're trying to do -- to show people that 'country music' doesn't have to be a derogatory term."