Sleepy LaBeef in a Bread Truck

Tom Lewis recalls his rockabilly adventures with a legend

Sleepy LaBeef
Sleepy LaBeef

For young musicians, life’s a crap shoot as to where the road leads, and there’s no reality check like touring. For Tom Lewis, first-call rockabilly and country drummer for locals Heybale! and the Wagoneers, Saturday’s show at the Continental Club with Sleepy LaBeef constitutes a trip down memory lane.

In 1984, Lewis was a member of Sixgun, a stylish Houston rockabilly trio with future Wagoneers guitarist Brent Wilson and Jim Wallace, soon to be bassist for the Reverend Horton Heat. Sixgun wasn’t exactly firing blanks, but after two years they gave up the ghost.

At a Houston gig at Rockefeller’s opening for Sleepy LaBeef, Lewis watched the rockabilly legend’s drummer struggling to keep the beat.

“I gave Sleepy my card and told him to call me if he ever needed a drummer,” remembers Lewis.

“It was a few weeks later – January 1st – that I received a call from Sleepy. He wanted to know if I could fly to Oklahoma City the next day and start a tour. I jumped at the chance and found myself on the road for most of ‘85. We traveled around the country in a secondhand bread truck pulling a trailer.

“Starting in April of that year, we based ourselves out of Boston and played regularly up and down the eastern seaboard. I learned almost everything while under his tutelage.

“I learned how to shuffle with my right hand. I learned country songs I had never heard before. I learned how to exist on the road for months at a time. In October of that year, Brent Wilson – who had left Houston and also joined with Sleepy – and I recorded a live album with Sleepy at a club in Boston. It was called Nuthin’ But the Truth and was released by Rounder. It was the first album I ever played on.

Nuthin’ But the Truth marked a turning point in the life of the 6-foot-7-inch Arkansas-born, Texas-raised singer born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff. In the Fifties, he’d been an Elvis also-ran, though no imitator. In the Sixties, he recorded for Shelby Singleton in Nashville, and went with the producer when he took over Sun Records the following decade.

The Eighties saw a renewed appreciation of LaBeef’s chunky guitar by bands like the Stray Cats, and he signed to Rounder Records for a series of recordings, including Nuthin’ But the Truth. Today, LaBeef spices his rockabilly with the country and blues from his childhood, making his South Congress Ave. double bill with the Wagoneers a dream teaming.

“That November, I moved to Austin and decided to quit the Sleepy tour,” finished Lewis. “Three years later, I’m in the Wagoneers in Nashville recording our second album, Good Fortune. We decided to use Sleepy on a rockabilly rave-up called ‘I Can’t Stay.’ It was our way to show respect to a man who showed us and taught us so much.

“Little did I know how much that card exchange had to do with the future of me as a musician.”

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