The Heart of Country
On the cover of his most recent album, Here I Am in Dallas, Dallas Wayne sits at the counter of a dimly lit bar with a cigarette in hand and a deeply troubled look on his face. He's obviously in no hurry to leave the joint. At his elbow are a half-dozen empty bottles of beer and an ashtray brimming with butts. It isn't hard to imagine Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" playing in the background, or maybe Wayne's own honky-tonk anthem "Bouncin' Beer Cans off the Jukebox."
There was a time when you couldn't really call yourself a country singer if you didn't have at least a handful of drinking songs in your repertoire. (And if your own alcohol consumption caused you to miss shows or get into brawls with other performers, well, so much the better.) These days, though, barroom ballads have all but disappeared from mainstream country music, which has been suburbanized beyond recognition. A few years ago, Alan Jackson made the charts with a cover of Jim Ed Brown's 1967 hit "Pop a Top," and George Jones and Garth Brooks recorded a delightfully politically incorrect song called "Beer Run." But those are exceptions that merely prove the rule.
"Nobody cuts this stuff anymore," says the 46-year-old Wayne, whose two albums for HighTone Records are filled with good old-fashioned drinking and cheating tunes. "The funny thing is," he says, "I'm a happily married man and I don't drink alcohol anymore." Not only that, but Wayne doesn't live anywhere near Dallas, Nashville or Bakersfield, places where you might actually find a honky-tonk. No, he and his wife live in, of all places, yupscale Cupertino, California, best known as the home of Apple Computer. "Right smack-dab in the middle of Silicon Valley," says Wayne in a deep, cigarette-hardened Missouri drawl. "We're the freaks of the neighborhood."
Maybe it's the 1965 Silver Eagle tour bus that Wayne sometimes keeps parked in front of his house. When the singer first moved to the area, he checked with the Cupertino Police Department to see if it was okay to station the large vehicle in his neighborhood. "They said it was legal," Wayne recalls, "but they also said I'd probably catch some shit for it." Sure enough, it didn't take long for some of his neighbors, who tend to drive Mercedeses and Lexuses, to start complaining about the diesel-powered behemoth, which once belonged to pop-country bandleader Danny Davis.
"The people across the street told the police they thought someone was living in the bus," Wayne says, laughing. "So the cops came over and said, 'Just move it on street-cleaning days, and every 72 hours just start it up and back it up a little bit. Let everyone know it's not abandoned.'"
At the moment, however, the bus -- which, incidentally, sleeps nine and has both a cassette deck and a CB radio -- is in the shop getting some much-needed repairs. "I told the mechanics, 'I'm in no hurry about this, so take your time,'" says Wayne, who plans to sell the bus (for $27,000 or "best offer") and downsize to an RV. "Frankly, it's become more trouble than it's worth. I'm tired of taking it to places like New York City and not being able to park it on the street."
The fact is, Wayne doesn't really care how he gets from one gig to another. If he has to rent a car, that's just fine with him. He doesn't even mind who backs him up. Usually, it's his own band, the Roadcases, but if he has to hire a local group for the night, no problem. (In Denver, Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams will be handling the task.) "This stuff ain't brain surgery," he says. "It's not that hard to play." For Wayne, it's the music that matters, and he considers himself mighty lucky to be making a living playing pure, undiluted, hard-core honky-tonk, even if there's not a chance in hell that anyone will ever get to hear it on mainstream country radio.
Born in Springfield, Missouri, which had a thriving country-music scene back in the '50s and '60s, Wayne got his first taste of live country music when he was just six years old. "It was a package show with Porter Wagoner, Faron Young, Little Jimmie Dickens and some others from the Grand Ole Opry," he recalls. "And that show is what ruined my life, I'm afraid." By the time he was in high school, Wayne was already playing country gigs with local bands -- that is, when he wasn't playing football.
In 1975, at the age of eighteen, Wayne packed up his bags and moved to Nashville, where he lived on and off for eight years, mostly doing roadwork and singing demos for publishing companies. "I played bass for a lot of the older guys," he says, "folks like Jack Greene and Jimmie Dickens. We'd go out on the road for a couple of weeks at a time. I stayed busy. Back then, Nashville was a place where you could always find work."
He also found steady employment at such legendary Broadway dives as the Wheel and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, where, on any given night, big-name pickers like Jerry Reed or Buddy Emmons might drop by and sit in with the band. Inspired by one of his roommates, Dennis Morgan, who was having success penning hits for Barbara Mandrell and Ronnie Milsap, Wayne began writing his own songs.
In 1983, he skipped town -- the result, he says, of "divorce, whiskey, and cocaine" -- and headed north, first to Philadelphia for a job fronting the house band at a country-music club called Hurley's Tavern, and then to Chicago for a similar gig. Eventually, he joined the bluegrass band Special Consensus, where he met alt-country genius-in-the-making Robbie Fulks.
In 1991, Wayne was on an eight-week European tour with Special Consensus when he met the owner of Finland's Texicali Records, who invited the singer to come back and record a country album for the label. "I'm basically a country singer," says Wayne, who has a deep, rumbling baritone voice that owes more to Waylon Jennings than to Bill Monroe. "I never have been a bluegrass singer, just a bluegrass lover. So in the back of my mind, I was always saying, 'At some point in my career, I'm going to have to stop singing this high.'"
Wayne took the executive up on his offer and cut Lucky 13 with a group of Finnish musicians he dubbed the Dimlights. "And that turned into five albums over there," says Wayne, who -- along with his second wife, Jo -- eventually decided to move to Finland full-time. (Jo found work at Nokia, the Finnish cell-phone company.)
As the only American in Helsinki playing classic country music, Wayne developed a loyal following of enthusiastic fans. "They're nuts about American music over there," Wayne says. Thanks to Europe's wide-open radio formats, he even scored a couple of hit singles, including "She," an old Finnish song that Wayne put English lyrics to. While in Finland, Wayne also worked as a staff writer for Warner-Chappell Music and did some television voice-over work.
"It was a great experience," he says. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Still, four winters in Helsinki was enough. Wayne and his wife lived in a 1916 farmhouse on top of a mountain, about twenty minutes from downtown. On one particularly cold morning -- Wayne thinks it was about 9 degrees Fahrenheit outside -- the singer returned from a gig to find the dirt road up to his house impassable due to ice and snow. Trudging up the hill, guitar in one hand and a bag of firewood in the other, he thought, "Okay, I'm done with this. This is my last winter here."
He'd already recorded Big Thinkin' and was shopping it around to several American labels, including the Oakland-based HighTone. Wayne's wife asked Nokia for a transfer back to the States, and the company offered her three choices: Boston, Dallas and San Jose. The couple chose the latter, partly because of its closeness to HighTone, which signed Wayne to a record deal one month after he and Jo settled in Cupertino.
Co-produced by Wayne and Fulks and released in 2000, Big Thinkin' is a masterpiece of hard country, with echoes of Haggard, Buck Owens, George Jones, Wynn Stewart, Red Simpson, John Anderson, Vern Gosdin and other honky-tonk heroes. Wayne recorded the album in his hometown of Springfield with the versatile country/roots-rock band the Skeletons, augmented by legendary steel-guitarist Tom Brumley, a key member of Owens's Buckaroos in their '60s heyday. Wayne and Fulks co-wrote most of the songs, which, sure enough, deal mostly with cheating and drinking, though one -- "If That's Country" -- offers Wayne's brilliant and biting critique of mainstream country music: "You can paint stripes on a billy goat/Call it a tiger if it floats your boat/You can make a star of a teenage girl/But one million dollars won't make her Merle/Laser beams and naval rings and a pretty face might be something/But you can kiss my Ozark ass if that's country."
Here I Am in Dallas, recorded in Los Angeles with the Roadcases and released in 2001, isn't quite as polished as Big Thinkin', but it's no less satisfying. Half the songs are tear-in-your-beer originals by Wayne, including the aforementioned "Bouncin' Beer Cans off the Jukebox," while the rest are well-chosen covers, including a little-known shuffle called "Happy Hour" that manages to combine both drinking and cheating. In it, a man stops at the local bar at happy hour to find his woman "slow dancing across the floor" in the arms of another man. Misery ensues: "So this is happy hour/Two drinks for the price of one/People laughing and having their fun/What a great place to be/Welcome to happy hour/They gather here every day/Cheating's one of the games they play/This time it's on me." Cheers!
For his next album, Wayne plans to reunite with the Skeletons in Springfield. Fulks might drop by to sing a few harmonies, and twang-master Redd Volkaert, Haggard's lead guitarist, might contribute a few licks here and there. "It'll be more of the same old shit," Wayne promises. "There aren't any surprises out of somebody my age."
Wayne's relationship with HighTone seems to have ended ("They're going through some problems right now," he says), so he plans to shop his new stuff around. Several labels, he says, have already expressed interest. He's hoping for an April 2003 release. In Europe, the album will come out on his old Finnish label, Texicali.
Meanwhile, the Americana Radio Network has just hired Wayne to be the host of an upcoming daily syndicated radio program. He intends to play songs by some of his favorite Americana artists -- he mentions Emmylou Harris, Kelly Willis and Buddy and Julie Miller -- but he also promises "lots of classic country." It's a safe bet that Faith Hill and Shania Twain won't make the playlist.
For Wayne, the best part is that he'll be able to record the show from his Cupertino home -- or even on that Silver Eagle bus if he ever takes it on the road again. "All I need is a quiet place to do it," he says.
A few weeks ago, Wayne sat down to watch the annual Country Music Association awards, which opened with a stunt double for Shania Twain roaring down the aisle of the Grand Ole Opry on a Harley. The real Twain then broke into her latest bit of pop-country confection, "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!" Wayne admits that, at that point, he nearly hit the "off" button on his remote control, but he stuck it out, mainly because he wanted to see the induction of one of his early musical heroes, Porter Wagoner, into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"I'd done a show with Porter about a month and a half ago in Nashville," he says, "and the buzz was out then that he was going to be inducted. I wanted to see it. Porter's an ornery old bastard, but he's put out some consistently good stuff over the years."
As for the rest of the show, Wayne noticed a few of the performers, including Alan Jackson, reaching back to country's honky-tonk roots. "I don't think they pulled it off, but that's okay," he says. "This music always changes. It always evolves. The people we think of as traditional were groundbreakers in their day. I just don't think I see anybody on the horizon today who'll warrant a listen in thirty years."
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