Music News

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."

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David Hill