By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – July 13, 2016) — I remember the day as it were yesterday. The year was 1982. MTV was a baby and the music world was in transition from hard rock (think AC/DC and Van Halen) to modern rock (think U2 and Duran Duran). During the summer of ‘82, three guys with pompadours and 1950’s dress had an unexpected musical hit in the midst of this transition. The Stray Cats, three fellows from the greater New York area, did the surprising: they had a string of successful records that defied the current categorization, catapulting the rockabilly sound back into the consciousness of pop music.
As I sat and watched the music video for Stray Cat Strut (and then later, Rock This Town) that summer and fall, I couldn’t help but think two thoughts: One, these are great songs — catchy, and two, who the heck are these guys? They seemed out of place in the midst of big hair (80’s hard rock) and makeup and mullets (80’s modern rock). But that was the allure of the Stray Cats — they did their own thing and were successful. They were one part punk, and two parts classic American music. It was an infectious mix.
All this was brought back to my memory recently as I sat in the plaza of Old Town in Albuquerque, New Mexico and watched the rockabilly group, The Shadow Men. Though more on the traditional side of the rockabilly spectrum (aka Buddy Holly), I was once again reminded how great the rockabilly sound — and scene — is!
For those not familiar with the genre of rockabilly, here’s how the ever-informative Wikipedia defines it:
“Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating back to the early 1950s in the United States, especially the South. As a genre it blends the sound of Western musical styles such as country with that of rhythm and blues, leading to what is considered ‘classic’ rock and roll. Some have also described it as a blend of bluegrass with rock and roll. The term ‘rockabilly’ itself is a portmanteau of ‘rock’ (from “rock ‘n’ roll”) and ‘hillbilly’, the latter a reference to the country music (often called “hillbilly music” in the 1940s and 1950s) that contributed strongly to the style. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swing, boogie woogie, jump blues, and electric blues.
“Defining features of the rockabilly sound included strong rhythms, vocal twangs, and common use of the tape echo; but progressive addition of different instruments and vocal harmonies led to its “dilution”. Initially popularized by artists such as Johnny Cash, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bob Luman, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the influence and success of the style waned in the 1960s; nonetheless, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival through acts such as Stray Cats. An interest in the genre endures even in the 21st century, often within a subculture. Rockabilly has left a legacy, spawning a variety of sub-styles and influencing other genres such as punk rock.”
Like so many other people in the early 1980’s, I was impressed with the resurgence of rockabilly, but soon left its sound for other styles and genres. But luckily the music remained, keeping an underground status over the years. And, fortunately, has continually resurfaced, spawning new groups and variations on the rockabilly sound (Cow Punk, Psychobilly, etc.).
So when my friend, Kenny Riley — who runs Rio Grande Studios in Albuquerque, told me that his friend, Mike Stand—former member of the successful Christian group, The Altar Boys — had a rockabilly band, I took notice.
Altar Boys were one of the first Christian alternative bands, combining modern rock and punk music. Based out of California (the mecca for modern Christian music), many consider The Altar Boy’s album, Gut Level Music, as one of the finest contemporary Christian albums. Mike Stand was the singer for The Altar Boys. And now, 30 years later, Mike Stand is keeping rockabilly alive with his newest band, The Altar Billies.
I caught up with Mike to discuss his group.
Mike, give as quick history of the Altar Billies. When—and why—did you start the band?
“The history behind Altar Billies begins with meeting Johnny X. I remember seeing this guy walking through our church parking lot one day wearing a Ramones t-shirt. I thought to myself, ‘There is someone I should get to know.’ It was of course Johnny, our bass player. And much to my surprise his wife and my wife were already friends. We really hit it off right away, and found we were cut from the same cloth.
“Sometime in 2006 I invited him to play guitar with me at a Wednesday night Bible study. We got to know each other on a musical level and I found out quickly that he was very talented. He had a good musical sense about him. One evening he showed me a demo of a rockabilly version of “Against the Grain,” an Altar Boys song. We started talking rockabilly and he made me a CD with a number of rockabilly groups on it. As I was listening to it I thought ‘Wow, where have I been? This is great!!’
So this is the beginning of the Altar Billies, I interject.
“Yes,” Mike continues. “So in the summer of 2008, we had a conversation about putting something together with him on upright bass and me on guitar. For lack of a better name we called it The Altar Billies, with the idea being to pick and choose a number of songs from Altar Boys and Clash of Symbols, another band I was in. Our thought was to play churches in and around Southern California. We recruited a drummer from church named Chris Cummings, and he played most of the drums on the first Altar Billies project. After about a year, Chris decided this just wasn’t the music for him. We needed a drummer and I instantaneously thought of Chuck Cummings, the drummer from Ken Riley’s former band, Common Bond. So, I gave him a phone call and we met for lunch. He decided to give it a try. When he came on board we really took a huge step forward.”
So how did it progress from there, I ask.
“Well, in 2010 we released our first little project featuring tracks with both Chuck and Chris on drums. We were still trying to figure it out. Some of the songs came out pretty good, but it was a first effort, and the idea was to just get something out there.
“Again the original idea behind Altar Billies was to just pick and choose songs from my catalog, give them the rockabilly treatment, and go out and play a few churches in the area.
“But a funny thing happened in early 2011. I began writing songs again. I’m not sure how or why it happened, I just sat down one evening when no one was around and gave it a shot and started writing a simple song called ‘Heaven came down to you,’ a slower country ballad that I’m still undecided on what to do with it. Then I decided we needed something fast and crazy, and within a few minutes I penned, ‘Hold On.’ I showed it to the guys and they loved it!
“So I thought well maybe I can write a few more. By the end of 2011 I had penned about six songs including, ‘I’m Still Stand’n.’ It was a complete surprise to me, as I had not really sat down and done any serious songwriting in many years.
“Before too long we had more than enough new songs for a project. So in 2014 we released our first full length CD called ‘Head’n out West’ that was very well received. It contained two remakes of songs previously released by the Altar Boys: ‘World Burning’ and ‘Ride this Train.’ The rest were recently penned tunes.”
Great story. Where do you currently stand with the band?
“We are currently in the process of recording our third project tentatively titled ‘Long, Long Road.’ It is scheduled for release in late September of 2016. There will be no remakes on this project, all the songs were specifically written for this group over the past few years.
Sounds like you’re creating something brand new.
“Yes. We are not trying to compete with The Altar Boys or recreate anything in my past. This is a new direction that finds me playing at street Fairs, clubs, bars, rockabilly Festivals, car shows, and occasionally, when the opportunity arises, a church. It is an amazing journey that I didn’t see coming, and I am grateful for the chance to play again, knowing all the while that at anytime it could end at a moments notice. Suddenly, the term ‘Lord willing’ has taken on a whole other meaning in this phase of my life in that it finds me enjoying an unexpected final roundup.”
How would you describe the Altar Billie sound? And what makes you attracted to the rockabilly sound, I ask.
“Let me first say that to in order to define our sound I need to explain rockabilly. I like to use a visual called the “four corners of rockabilly.” Picture a square. At the center of this square is rockabilly music. In each corner is an influence or genre of music that plays into Rockabilly. In one corner is Gospel/bluegrass; the second corner contains country/western music; the third and forth corners have blues/rock and swing/jazz. Go to far out of each corner and you leave the elements of rockabilly and crossover into another genre. So the lines do blur; but rockabilly really is a blend of all of these elements, yet it its own thing. It is quite narrow in one sense, but very broad as long as you don’t venture out to far into either direction.”
Apply this concept to one of your albums.
“Sure. In our case, if you listen to our project ‘Head’n out West,’ it touches on all of these four corners, but does not wander too far in either direction. The four corners of rockabilly are well observed in the four main videos we have released. ‘Ballad of the Big Boy’—touches on the Bluegrass Gospel corner of rockabilly; ‘Aim’n High’ — skirts swing/jazz; while ‘I’m still Stand’n,’ — our most popular video and song as of this writing—leans towards the country-side of rockabilly. And finally our title cut and latest video ‘Head’n out West’ ventures into the rock corner of rockabilly.”
So if I’m hearing you correctly, rockabilly affords you to play in various genres while keeping a musical foundation rooted in a particular style.
“Yes. With rockabilly you can do it all. I can play jazz, rock, country, bluegrass, and still have it come under the umbrella of rockabilly. One could argue that no other musical style is as diverse, while at the same time very narrow. It is a tricky tightrope that I find quite enjoyable to walk because the possibilities are endless. Yet you do have to be careful because you can easily fall either way and cross over into other genres that take you down a musical rabbit trail that can lead you into the musical brambles.”
So how would you place Altar Billies in light of the classic rockabilly sound?
“We are definitely not traditional in the sense that we are not close to laying it down like Carl Perkins, the Collins kids, or Johnny Burnette. Very few can pull it together like they did. What those guys did was a one-time deal, a moment in time that I don’t think can ever be recreated – although many like Brian Setzer (of the Stray Cats), Big Sandy, and James Inveld come close, very close I might add.”
You obviously have a Christian worldview. How does your Christian faith influence the music of Altar Billies, if at all?
“Our faith affects everything we do. Some of our songs like ‘Saved’ are very upfront about our faith. Others like ‘The Ballad of the Boy’ or ‘Aim’n High’ contain either Biblical references or an aspect of the Gospel. I am very detailed when it comes to my lyrics and have a motto: nothing is written; only rewritten. I explore every aspect of a song lyrically until I narrow it down and fine-tune it like a well-run machine. I don’t feel pressured to use direct Gospel references unless it fits the songs lyrically or thematically. While at the same time, every song I write can be connected to some aspect or truth found in scripture. On our new record I wrote a song called ‘Whatever Happened to the Caboose?’ It’s about a guy who recently discovers that trains no longer have cabooses. He laments this loss—a heartbreaking discovery (tongue in cheek). The song can easily be connected with many of the themes of loss and change found in the book of Ecclesiastes.”
What makes rockabilly enduring? Why do you think it’s remained fairly relevant for over 60 years?
Among other things, I think rockabilly is enduring because of a number of factors. It was a very simple and prosperous time in America. Sure there were problems, but there was also a certain innocence and freshness in both music and youth culture that is associated with this time period. Next, the music and players were just amazing. Scotty Moore, Grady Martin, Eddie Cochran, Joe Maphis, not to mention all of the great mostly jazz drummers and upright players making incredible recordings. Most of these guys were studied seasoned jazz or country players that knew their instruments and had great chops. Finally, rockabilly is genuine and diverse. And because it is so diverse it is able to bridge the gap between all genres like no other form of music can do. We find both punk rockers and 80-year-old grandma and grandpas coming to our gigs. There are not too many genres of music that can cover that much musical and social territory. Most modern music does not have that kind of reach, not even close. Rockabilly is unique, and its ability to connect with people at the ‘ahh shucks’ level is simply made in the shade.”
To learn more about the Altar Billies — or one of the groups discussed in the article, click here:
Photo captions: 1) The Altar Billies on stage. 2) The Stray Cats. 3) Carl Perkins. 4) The Altar Billies in action. 5) The Altar Billies. 6) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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