Texas country band hangs on to Johnny Cash's swagger
October 31, 2008
“Mainstream country,” laments Mark Stuart, “turns its back on its heroes.” Because of that, it’s near impossible to find a song by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson or George Jones on FM radio.
“Even rock ‘n’ rollers get oldies stations,” says Stuart, who fronts the Austin, Texas, honky-tonk band Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. “But old country guys hardly ever get anything. Try to turn on the radio and get Johnny Cash on a radio station. You can’t do it.”
To Stuart, country music is the men who made it – it’s the swagger, grit and working-class aesthetic that made Cash a favorite in maximum-security prisons. With his band, Stuart tries to keep country’s roots alive, penning songs about the people, places and problems he’s encountered in a two-decade transition from combat-booted punk rocker to cowboy-booted songsmith.
On Thursday, the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash come to the Old Town Pub in support of a new live CD and greatest hits collection. On his way to buy new boots for the tour, Stuart talked with 4 Points about how he came to country music, how he got the Man in Black’s blessing and how he thinks Nashville, Tenn., record money has ruined what Cash helped create.
4 POINTS: How did you end up with this band name, Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash?
MARK STUART: I came up with the name because I used to be in a punk rock band out in California, and I always liked the swagger that Johnny Cash had. I was hoping that we could co-opt a little bit of his cool. : I was looking for that sort of outlaw thing, and you know, when it comes to being the hippest man in country music, Johnny Cash is No. 1.
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4 POINTS: How do you make that transition, from punk rocker to country singer?
MS: You know, it’s a pretty natural progression, and people are probably asking Mike Ness of Social Distortion the same thing. There’s something about (playing) not just slick polished country, but (playing) greasy honky-tonk music that appeals to punk rockers. :
They end up falling in love with the whole culture of the thing, and they get caught up in the boots and the hats, and they get caught up in the whiskey drinking, and they fall in love with the fashion, and then fall in love with the music.
4 POINTS: I’ve never really thought about that, but I guess the fashion is similar, with different boots.
MS: You could take a Mike-Ness-sort-of-looking-person and put a pearl-snap shirt and boots on him, and hey, you’ve got country.
4 POINTS: What did you have to do to make that transition? What kinds of changes in playing and songwriting were required?
MS: It required, for me, actually learning how to play my guitar. : For me, it was like a 20-year journey of learning how to not suck.
4 POINTS: What pushed you toward playing this kind of music?
MS: Country music was playing around our house all the time, so when all of my friends got caught up in the swing dance craze and everybody was zoot suit rioting all over the place, I didn’t want to be Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. So I was like, I like this honky-tonk music way better; it’s cooler.
4 POINTS: It says in your bio that you got Johnny Cash’s permission to use his name in your band title. How did that happen?
MS: I just snuck on to the set of the TV show he was on, and made it happen that way. I sent him a letter and a (demo tape), and he really liked it, and he called me at home. I said, I can’t believe you’re taking the time to talk to me, and he said, “I’m just a regular guy talking to a regular guy.”
(I was thinking) “If I could talk, I would say I’m unbelievably honored, and I can’t believe you’re talking to me.” : I think he really enjoyed the music, and I think he kind of liked the fact that I had the balls to sneak on to the set and give him the tape.
4 POINTS: Why did you move from San Diego to Austin, Texas?
MS: I was living in San Diego, and there really just is not much honky-tonk lifestyle or places to play. You’re basically like a freak of nature playing country music in San Diego, so I needed to get to where my peeps were. It was just overdue.
It’s like the old joke. What’s the difference between a pizza and a honky-tonk singer in San Diego? A pizza can actually feed a family of four.
4 POINTS: So you’ve found musicians and gigs in Austin?
MS: There’s a community, and you feel like you’ve found the right place to be for your type of music. : If I wanted to be a Nashville star and sing that sort of slick, commercialized kind of music, I would move to Nashville.
4 POINTS: What do you think of the country music coming out of Nashville?
MS: I think it’s really dumb. I think the music is pretty dull and manufactured, and I think it insults peoples’ intelligence. They don’t want to let people like the legends of country music, like Willie (Nelson) and Merle Haggard, (they don’t want to let them) play the game anymore. They just want people who are 12, 15, 17 years old, singing about heartache and whiskey – and they’re not even old enough to : drive.
4 POINTS: Do you think that hurts the rest of country music, to have those “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” kind of songs in the forefront?
MS: (People who hear those songs) are only going to hear one side of the equation. They’re not going to hear the other side, and they’re not going to hear the people who made country music cool in the first place. : The heroes of country music are forgotten, and they’re forgotten by the very place that they made. They made Nashville this place where country music was king. :
If you’re going to give me a honky-tonker, give me a real man that’s actually worked a job and doesn’t have French nails. Give me boots and pearl snap shirts. I mean George Strait, he looks tough compared to most of these guys (on mainstream country music videos), and he’s like 117 years old right now.
Where is the reality in the music anymore? Where is the reality and the working class mentality that made country music in the first place? It’s gone away, and old bands like us try to keep it going, the best we can. We pull up in our silly van, and we play a show.
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