june 2008


Heybale! Shows the World What Austin Knew About All Along

By David McGee


Heybale! from left: Redd Volkaert, Gary Claxton, Earl Poole Ball, Kevin Smith and Tom Lewis. Ball says the band "had a lot of assistance from the universe" in making its new album. "It was guidance from above, in a way." (Photo by Todd Wolfson)

The audacity of these guys. Where do they get off titling their album, The Last Country Album? They’ve both played with Merle Haggard, one for nearly seven years. What’s Merle gonna think when he gets a load of the album title? That someone’s trying to put him out to pasture?

“Go around the country and go in any bar on the lower level of the club scene, and how many what we call real country bands are playing the old style, honest to goodness honky tonk hillbilly country music?” queries stout Redd Volkaert, he of the near-seven-year Haggard tenure. “You go in any bar in America, how many of those are you gonna hear that same stuff from nine to one in the morning? Not many. I’m sure there are some, but in our neck of the woods even—and Austin’s a swingin’ music town—I think we got the only game on Sunday night doing what we do, definitely. So that’s why Tom came up with the name for the album, because there’s just not much of our kind of country stuff around. Bands don’t make their living playing this; they may play once a month or something like that. One way or another that’s all we do.”

The “Tom” in question is Tom Lewis, drummer for Heybale!, a staple on the Austin circuit for the six years of its history. After two albums released locally (one live, one from a radio show), Heybale! has issued its first nationally distributed effort, titled, yes, The Last Country Album, and it taking it on the road a bit. This interview took place before the band made its New York City debut at one of Gotham’s newest and most celebrated BBQ joints, Hill Country, an establishment owned and operated by a couple of Texas natives. The band’s album may not be the last country album, one hopes, but its home is in the honky tonk and the musicians make no pretense of wanting to be anywhere but where they are, playing what they’re playing.

With able assists from sometime-Heybalers Cindy Cashdollar on steel, and Eric Hokkanen and Elana James (late of the Hot Club of Cowtown) on twin fiddles, Heybale!’s timeless sound can be small combo tough and sinewy one minute and the next as robust and evocative as the Texas Playboys. In addition to Volkaert’s precision guitar work the band is blessed by the classic honky tonk piano stylings and songwriting prowess of Earl Poole Ball, a man who played the 88s for Johnny Cash for 20 years (1977-1997), and has logged time in his amazing career with, among other notables, Hag, Buck Owens, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Gram Parsons’s International Submarine Band and the Byrds (that’s him on Sweetheart of the Rodeo), in addition to appearing in several movies. Ball’s distinctive, historically resonant, deeply emotional piano commentary is one of Heybale!’s enduring delights and distinctive sound signatures. No one has described it better than the Austin Chronicle's Jerry Renshaw, in a 1999 profile of Ball, when he observed that “the magic [Ball] works on his Kurzweil digital piano echoes Jerry Lee Lewis, Moon Mullican, Bill Black, Charlie Rich, Floyd Cramer, and a half-dozen other players—without mimicking any one of them. It's a simmering, rolling, honky-tonk metier that flows like water and is as natural and unforced as putting on a shirt.”

But Heybale! is more than a couple of seasoned pros surrounded by neophytes. Drummer Tom Lewis is in Raoul Malo’s band (Malo helped mix the album) and he’s recorded with Hank Thompson and Junior Brown; standup bassman Kevin Smith currently tours with Dwight Yoakam. Lead vocalist-rhythm guitarist Gary Claxton has worked the road for the past two decades, and has become a favorite of Austin music fans. If anything, his emergence here as both a singer and a songwriter is—at least for those outside Austin who rarely if ever get to see Heybale! live—a revelation. His high, aching tenor is perfect for the music Heybale! makes, and his impeccable phrasing shows he’s learned how the slightest twist on a lyric can reveal deeper shades of meaning and lend a song a richness its text only suggests. He and Volkaert teamed up to write “California Wine,” which Ball asserts is “the best song on the album,” a cautionary tale about a son who is bent on following in his guitar-picking father’s self-destructive, drifting, alcoholic ways to no good end. But Claxton alone penned “House of Secrets,” a melancholy cheatin’ song with a beautiful, keening melody line, a dreamy arrangement and a most unusual lyrical twist in that both partners in a marriage find out they’re stepping out on each other at the same time.

“Gary’s always been as good as he is on this album,” Volkaert asserts. “But you know, he’s a singer and a rhythm player, so Merle Haggard’s not gonna hire him. What for? Credential-wise, if that’s what you do as a lead singer, you’re your own guy with a bat and a glove, that’s it.”

“Gary writes real country music,” Ball states in a that’s-all-there-is-too-it manner that is diplomatic, succinct and authoritative all at once. “He’s really a great songwriter. We’re just lucky we all got together.”

Ball and Volkaert won’t be drawn into making any grand mission statements about Heybale!. They’ve seen too much and been too many places in their colorful careers to claim anything more than an intent to make good music for the masses’ enjoyment. Asked how, given the wealth of material at their command, the fellows picked the songs for their big-time debut, both gentlemen look at each other and shrug.

“It just kind of evolved, didn’t it, Redd?,” Ball answers, looking at his partner for affirmation.

“Yeah,” Volkaert responds in his deep drawl, before illuminating a bit of the process as it happened. “Like all diplomatic bands, it kind of went, ‘You do two or three,’ ‘You do two or three,’ “You shut up.’ And that was about it.”

“Right,” Ball adds. “And we road-tested the songs.”

“Wanted to see if people were dancin’ to ‘em and enjoyin’ ‘em, that kind of thing,” notes Volkaert, “and then we knew these would probably work, y’know.”

And the covers, which include a lesser-known Willie Nelson tune (“Mr. Record Man”), Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” (Claxton knocks it out of the park with an warm, emotional reading) and Fred Rose’s “Hang Your Head in Shame” (which has been recorded by everyone from Bob Wills to Hank Thompson to Jimmy Dean to Doc Watson, and gives Volkaert a splendid showcase for his Ernest Tubb-like baritone and Ball a star turn with a lively piano solo, not to mention those beautiful twin fiddles and Cashdollar’s swooping steel lines)? Any particular intent in their being selected from the bottomless pit of songs in the band’s repertoire?

“Aww, we just like doing those songs and they go over good, people seem to like them, so why not?” Volkaert answers. “I don’t think it was that hard or that thought out of a deal as far as big planning ahead.”

Placing things in a metaphysical context, Ball says the band “had a lot of assistance from the universe as to how this thing came about. It was guidance from above, in a way.”

Good enough, then.

As it happens, though, The Last Country Album may not be the last country album from the Heybalers. Ball says the band has joked about The Last Country Album, Volume 2. The larger point to be made about this aggregate, though, is that six years on they’re still feeling their oats and enjoying the synergy of their common purpose.

“We enjoy doing this; we enjoy working together in the studio, enjoy the way people seem to love us, we’ve got lots of songs written, got lots of classics we’d like to do,” Ball says. “So we’ll find the proper mix and balance in that, kind of toss it around. We’ll start doing some of the newer ones in a few weeks or a month or two. Then we’ll see if the people liked that one, do we like playing that one, yeah, we like that. Did they like it? Okay. That’ll go in the pile when we figure out what to do next and when to do it.”

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
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