On Any Sunday
Heybale raises the roof
'Round midnight on a Sunday night any Sunday, thank you when most clean-living, hard-working folks are asleep, Heybale is raising the roof at the Continental Club. The country superstar quintet has held court there for five years running, catering to dancers, drinkers, celebrities, tourists, and regulars at the venerable South Congress nightspot. Like Toni Price at her renowned Hippie Hour shows on Tuesdays, Heybale rules on Sunday.
The players are undeniably powerful. A towering drummer with a vision of country excellence. A veteran guitarist revered by all six-stringers. A dark horse Nashville singer-songwriter. A stylish rockabilly bassist. A legendary pianist. Even their names ring with solid authority: Tom Lewis, Redd Volkaert, Gary Claxton, Kevin Smith, Earl Poole Ball.
Heybale likes things their own way. They play classic country music but pepper it with originals that are indistinguishable from the larger C&W canon. They've put out two CDs, but only live recordings; their first studio recording is weeks away. They play out of town, but every Sunday at the Continental is a commitment; each member has other musical projects that occasionally call them from the stage, but a stable of other pros waits in the wings.
Over the past five years, Heybale has grown from a weekly honky-tonk revue to one of the must-see acts in Austin. Their secret is no secret at all. It's just good country music, big as Texas itself. Maybe bigger.
Well, pour me another cup of coffee,
For it is the best in the land.
I'll put a nickel in the jukebox,
And play the truck drivin' man.
"Truck Drivin' Man"
Redd Volkaert finishes off the Dave Dudley classic with an effortless flourish down the neck of his beloved Telecaster. Stage right, Earl Poole Ball matches Volkaert on the keys and nods to bassist Kevin Smith. Guitarist-vocalist Gary Claxton looks over his shoulder to the drummer, who completes the song with a final snap of his drumsticks.
At 6-feet-7-inches, Tom Lewis is imminently memorable. His dark, brooding good looks belie a wicked sense of humor and an astonishing knowledge of country music. As drummer and founder of Heybale, Lewis anchors the band with his backbone beat, much as he's done with Hank Thompson, Tanya Tucker, Jim Lauderdale, Connie Smith, and Junior Brown.
The Houston native experienced his musical epiphany as a teenager seeing Waylon Jennings. He shuffled in and out of college, playing in bands and living out of his car before landing his first major gig drumming for rockabilly king Sleepy LaBeef.
"It was country college," Lewis remembers. "Shit pay, but learning the ropes. [LaBeef] was a lot of fun, touring in his bread truck, pulling a trailer he lived in a trailer park."
The gig lasted almost a year, and when it was over, Lewis moved to Austin. He joined up with Monte Warden in the newly formed Wagoneers, a canny mix of traditional country and rockabilly that predated alt.country. The quartet was seen at Austin's onetime music festival precursor, AquaFest, in 1987 and flown out to Los Angeles the following week. The acclaimed Stout and High came out on A&M the following year, but the second album stiffed.
Lewis found himself in Nashville by 1994 and put together the first version of Heybale while playing The End club. Among the regular corps was Redd Volkaert, whom Lewis had met in L.A. previously. Musicians such as Chris Scruggs of BR5-49 used to sit in, as did a songwriter named Gary Claxton.
Playing music in Nashville was a revelation for Lewis.
"At 6pm, when [music industry] folk go home from work, they're not going out to clubs to hear more live music or entertainment. It's business for them. There are places to play, but it's frustrating unless you go down to Broadway and slug it out on the strip for tourists. There you gotta play four-hour sets without taking a break because the minute you take a break, the club empties out. You're a chicken on a hotplate.
"On Saturdays, I'd play from 2-6pm at Robert's, 6-10pm at Tootsie's, then go to Legends and play 10pm to 2am. It'll wear your ass out. I wasn't making money, but I was keeping my chops up."
By 1999, Tom Lewis decided his chops were sharp enough to head southwest once again.
The Rhythm and the Bass
Wine me up, turn me on, and watch me cry
Lately, drinkin' warm red wine is all I wanna do.
And I never know how tight I'll wine me up till
I walk in.
But I don't care, 'cause I'll be back to wine me
"Wine Me Up"
Gary Claxton grins as applause breaks out at the end of the Faron Young favorite, and he picks a few notes of "Mexico," a song he co-wrote with Earl. The Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter is never at a loss for a song, not with 100 of his own on a list taped to the back of his guitar. His quiet presence onstage belies the muscle he puts into the band's sound. For him, playing in Heybale is the perfect antidote to his poisonous experience in Nashville.
Claxton arrived in Nashville when he placed as a finalist in the Jim Beam Country Songwriting competition. He was flown in to showcase for the competition and inked a publishing deal while there. Life in Music City was an educational experience, but he soon soured on it.
"When I was working for the publishing company in Nashville, the record company sent what they called a Music Row Fax," he explains. "It had a list of the artists and what they were looking for. It was almost like the Hollywood Code, where you couldn't say certain things. It would say, 'So-and-so artist looking for contemporary country music. No cheating songs, no drinking songs, no traditional country; we're looking for midtempo music with a positive message.'
"It was so hostile to anything that was classic country.
"They wanted to make it more mainstream so they could make more money, and they were right. They did make more money. But none of the songs today have the shelf life of Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. It's watered-down soft rock. We were all sick of that attitude."
Not all of Claxton's Nashville experience was bad. He got an insider's look at the business and its drain on musicians ("I saw Redd play in three different bands one night"). When told to recruit some musicians for a showcase, he tapped Volkaert and Lewis. After the latter relocated to Austin at the tail end of the Nineties, Claxton received an invitation to play the Buck Owens Birthday Bash at the Continental. That was all it took to get him and his wife here.
"It's not like we planned to move here as Heybale. We were just mutually tired of Nashville. Seems like once you move there, you get categorized as a singer-songwriter, or session guy, studio musician, a road guy you get put into one of the camps."
Kevin Smith managed to skirt the Nashville scene, but his decision to avoid heavy touring was based much closer to home: He wanted to be around his wife and two children. The band's stand-up bassist, Smith arrived in Austin in the late Eighties from Colorado with Shaun Young and soon led the local rockabilly revival with High Noon. At 37, he's the youngest member of Heybale, his smooth good looks accented by a fine style of dress.
"I hit the road hard for almost 10 years," he nods. "That's great in your 20s, but if you get married and have kids, you don't want that. I love doing the fly-out dates, but I have a 15-month-old and a 41/2-year-old. It's really important for me to be around with them. As they get older, I can go out and do more stuff, but my priority right now is being with my family."
The fly-out dates happen often, not just for Smith but all of the group. One of the benefits to being in such a well-loved act is that all the band members are in high demand as session hands while also commanding solo gigs and gigging with other bands. That adaptability means guests like local country bassist-songwriter Billy Dee fill in regularly, as when Smith recently had out-of-town engagements. Maryann Price and Elana Fremerman regularly step up with vocals and fiddle, respectively, as does violin master Erik Hokkanen, giving Heybale a remarkably diverse sound. Smith's membership in Heybale allows him the luxury of being with his family as much as possible, but playing in the group is its own simple reward.
"My goal with Heybale is to have fun on Sunday nights and get people dancing. Getting to play with Redd and Earl is a bonus."
But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin',
I hang my head and cry.
"Folsom Prison Blues"
During a break one recent Sunday night, a woman wandered over to the Heybale CDs for sale and picked one up.
"Are you the artist?" she asked Redd Volkaert, standing nearby.
"No," he shot back. "I can't draw a thing."
All the exchange lacked was a rimshot from Tom Lewis. Volkaert's dry wit is as accomplished as the man himself, once guitarist in Merle Haggard's band. He's the sort of character literature and film make up. His guitar playing's as stout and solid as he is. His tight blond curls and red beard over the compact Popeye forearms suggest that somewhere deep in that bloodline a Viking ancestor sailed the North Sea. A distinctive baritone accompanies his liquid touch on guitar.
Volkaert recalls meeting Tom Lewis first in L.A., when the drummer's "hair was still black and he was green as a gourd." After renewing their friendship in Nashville with the original Heybale, the guitarist stayed as Lewis headed south, but not for long ("Redd Light Special"). After moving to Austin in 2000, Volkaert replaced guitarist Pete Mitchell around the time Kevin Smith replaced Preston Rumbaugh and Gary Claxton and Earl Poole Ball joined in the second, Austin-based version of Heybale. This suited Volkaert just dandy, as does the venue itself.
"The beauty of the Continental is that it's a community center for everybody," notes the picker. "Not just for blues guys or rock or funk guys or Americana or whatever. Any night you go in there you can see folk music, blues, rock Grady, Toni, Honky, Gypsy Jazz Swing, Heybale, all kinds. It's obvious [owner] Steve [Wertheimer] just loves music. If he likes something, even if no one else does, he'll hire them anyway and take a bath on the money. No club owner does that."
Earl Poole Ball calls Wertheimer "the patron saint of Heybale." The man known as Mr. Honky Tonk Piano sits opposite Volkaert at stage left. Together, they're the superstar yin-yang that balances the band, quite literally. The chemistry between the two is palpable, electrifying on nights when the energy is high. The intuitive communication between them is indiscernible, yet crackles and sparks like freshly cut live wires.
"It's knowing by the lift of an eyebrow or a nod of the head what's gonna happen next," explains Ball. "Redd and I watch each other really close. Kevin will step back and I wish he'd step forward because he's a great presence and Redd and I watch each other across the stage. He intros a lot of the tunes and I watch him for direction on what he wants me to fill or play. The sequence of the fills is dictated by him and usually we'll alternate."
The pianist's credentials are embarrassingly impressive. Producer, singer, songwriter, and musician of many decades, he cuts a distinguished figure onstage with his silver hair and goatee, and inimitable style on the keys. His 20 years playing for Johnny Cash notwithstanding, he's country music royalty for his piano work on the Byrds' seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo alone. If that's not enough, Ball's a favorite face of director Peter Bogdanovich, who cast him in The Thing Called Love and Texasville. Offstage, Ball sums up the band's appeal.
"Heybale's direction is toward older country and the older rockabilly with occasional swing things that I choose. Kevin or Gary will suggest songs to do. I do a couple of Johnny Cash numbers, some Gram Parsons and Burrito Brothers, then I just take from classic country that sounds right for this band to do."
Ball's storied résumé makes him acutely aware of Heybale's inextricable relationship with the fans who dance to the music he calls classic country. That sterling résumé let him in on the age-old secret between country musicians and their fans, an understanding rarely seen in rock & roll.
"The dancers dictate a lot of what we do," explains Ball. "You're aware of what songs the audience likes because they request them over and over again. That makes it easy. They like to dance to the older country shuffles and waltzes, kick up their heels to the rockabilly things. I know the kind of tunes they like and that we're there to play them.
"A lot of us started out playing in honky-tonks where the audience didn't sit like at rock & roll clubs or scream and holler as they watched the band. Those people wanted to dance. That's the country music school I came up in. You play for people to dance, and when you're playing a nightclub where people dance, you damn well better pay attention to them. They're not standing out there waiting for you to be cute and look great."
"People consider Heybale a dance band," agrees Kevin Smith. "You have the swing dancers, the interpretive hippie dancers, metalheads who watch Redd play it's a mixed group of people. Some of those people really know how to dance!"
"And country music is family music," adds Tom Lewis. "Even if Daddy's cheatin' on Mama, it's still family. Good or bad family, function or dysfunction. Rock & roll is the opposite. It's like telling your family to fuck off and doing whatever you want to do."
"There are a lot of elements that go into classic country," notes Gary Claxton. "I like that era because of the level of musicianship: highly developed, like Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys who played sophisticated jazz. These retro-country bands can play a song like "Nightlife" well, but to play it right, it has to be done by Redd Volkaert. Yet we can do raw Chuck Berry stuff because Earl's got that great honky-tonk piano."
That hardly improves the band's future as a touring endeavor says Volkaert.
"We're not motivated materialistically. A bunch of old grumpy guys on the road is gonna cost someone some money."
Do the Continental
Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new,
But my yearning heart keeps saying you're
My troubled mind knows soon to another you'll
That's why I'm lonely all the time. "Crazy Arms"
Standing by the stage as Heybale wails away is a Continentalette. You know, the girl with Betty Page bangs, blood red lips, and a skirt that cups her ass like God's own hands. The smoke from her cigarette curls upward past her crimson dragon nails and into the layer of haze above the dance floor, where the mirrored ball spins and sparkles endlessly.
Up saunters one of the club's regulars, dressed to the nines with spit-shined boots and glistening, razor-cut hair. He taps her shoulder and gestures to the dance floor. She issues a long stream of blue smoke with her "yes" and flicks the half-finished cigarette on the floor, extinguishing the bright orange embers with a point of her black patent leather heels. The couple swings into the middle of the other dancers, lost in the sway of the music.
The audience comes in couples, as singles, and in packs, all ready for one thing: to hear a band that keeps the standard for Austin music impossibly high. It's ritual for some, and like church for others, but for all present it's pure pleasure. If Nashville had better sense than to run off veterans, Sunday nights in Austin might sound considerably different.
"Nashville cut the cord and kept the name," shrugs Gary Claxton. "The product has the same name but doesn't resemble what it used to be at all. That's what confuses people. They don't know what country is anymore."
Heybale is here to remind them.