25 Years of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys
Rockabilly crew rolls into the Continental Club Saturday
By Jim Caligiuri, 4:20PM, Wed. Jul. 17
Bands rarely celebrate 25 years together. For longtime Los Angeles rockabillyists Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, the milestone comes with August’s What a Dream It’s Been, acoustic remakes of songs from their extensive discography. The results are unusual and satisfying.
I spoke to Robert Williams, aka Big Sandy, in advance of his band’s Saturday showcase at the Continental Club about staying fresh after a quarter century, making the new disc, and the band’s very first record review.
Austin Chronicle: I like the idea of rearranging some of the old songs for the new disc. You’ve never put a track on one of your albums with a reggae feel, have you?
Big Sandy: No, that’s a new thing for us. I’ve been listening to rocksteady and Jamaican music for quite a few years, but this is the first time any hint of that has come through in my own music. We mess around with it a lot in rehearsals and soundchecks, but this is the first time we’ve recorded anything like that.
AC: Where did the idea of making the new disc mostly acoustic originate? That makes it different as well.
BS: There were two or three factors that came together for this record. It was my guitar player Ashley Kingman’s idea to do an all-acoustic record, and I thought it’d be kind of fun. Then, a couple of years ago, we had a few shows where the power went out. So we had to step off the stage and perform a set acoustically, and I started thinking that it’d be cool to work up some things to perform that way.
We were in a nostalgic state of mind with our 25th anniversary coming up, so I was going through our records or looking on the BMI listings to see what’s out there. I realized I had forgotten some of these songs. I kind of lost perspective. So I thought it would be fun to go back and revisit some of the songs and find something new in them.
AC: It’s a testament to your songwriting that you’re able to rearrange your songs and still keep the melody. I’ve seen other songwriters attempt the same thing and not be as successful as you are on the new album. Unless you’re a hardcore fan, there’s only one or two songs on it that you might recognize.
BS: Most of these songs are songs that fell by the wayside. You look back and wonder why a song was forgotten. The songs meant something to me at the time I wrote them, but, for whatever reason, life takes you in a different direction and you forget about them. There are a couple that people might know, but most of them we never really played live.
AC: Will you be playing some of the songs acoustic this tour?
BS: There’s a little bit on this trip. Next month when the album’s actually out, we have a segment in the middle where we’ll break down and do the acoustic thing.
AC: Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen were your mid- to late-Nineties shows at the Continental Club. People dressed up and danced like mad. It was a generally crazy scene. Do you remember those nights?
BS: I do, although there was a lot of tequila flowing those nights. It always seemed like an event those nights that we played there. The last two times we played at the Continental I’ve felt that same excitement. There was a line around the block to get in. It’s nice after doing it this long the see that. It still feels good.
AC: Your voice still sounds as good as it ever did. Do you have some sort of magic potion for that?
BS: [Laughs] I feel blessed. I didn’t expect to have the same passion for anything after doing it for so long. Personally, I like my singing the way that it is now. Like many artists, I go back and listen to what I’ve done and kind of cringe.
AC: I was looking at your discography and I saw it listed the first record you released on Dionysus Records in 1992. I remember reviewing that for the roots music column I was writing at the time in CMJ.
BS: I think that was the first review we ever got. I’ve saved everything over the years. Do you remember how you got a copy of it?
AC: I don’t. All I know is it came into the office, I listened to it, and liked it.
BS: That label was really for Sixties garage bands at the time, so it was kind of unusual for us to be with them. Lee Joseph, who still has something to do with the label, was a friend of ours. They had limited distribution, so it was surprising to me that someone on the other side of the country got their hands on one. I have vinyl copies of that, but what I don’t have is one on cassette. I’m still searching for one.
AC: Those were different times. Any idea how many cassettes they made?
BS: I don’t know. But some of the first records we made with Hightone after that, up to Swinging West, came out on cassette. That’s a little weird to think about.