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Show of Willy Power

Moonshine Willy
D. Spinelli

Where There's a Willy: Fringe country rebels Moonshine Willy play Henfling's in Ben Lomond on Tuesday night and SC's Redroom on Wednesday night.

Post-modern rockers from Chicago raise the rafters with their aggressive punk-inspired hillbilly--just don't call it rockabilly

By Suzanne Baker

JUST BECAUSE COUNTRY MUSIC has gone the achy-breaky way of Billy Ray and Garth "I Got Friends" Brooks, don't lose hope of finding talent lurking on the fringes. In the case of Moonshine Willy, the fringe is the Windy City, and the band doesn't lurk so much as tear the roof off whatever venue is lucky enough to have them.

With five distinct musical personalities coalescing under one torn-off ceiling, promoters and critics have been hard-pressed to find a bite-sized label to slap on the band. But whatever you do, don't call them "the R-word."

"That's rockabilly," says Kim Doctor, vocalist, rhythm guitarist and songwriter for Moonshine Willy. "Cowpunk" is another unsavory and misleading label, as is "alternative country," since country has gone the way of "disco popification" and "alternative doesn't mean anything anymore," according to Doctor.

"Aggressive hillbilly" is a term that Doctor can live with--it describes Moonshine Willy's frenetic rhythms and their allegiance to traditional country music.

And what about the much-touted "punk" aspect of their music? "It's more of a punk energy at our shows," says Doctor. "An honest, raw attitude--and we do play really fast. We're post-punk rockers at heart," she adds, laughing.

Honesty is the tie that binds the band's punk past and their country present. "Country shares the same chords as punk, the same honesty in songwriting," Doctor says.

Moonshine Willy's label-defying recipe for success stirs up old country, bluegrass, pop, punk, and rhythm and blues influences with equal amounts of talent from each of the group's five members. Playing the hell out of the guitar, banjo and mandolin is Nancy Rideout, who Doctor describes as "bluegrass hellcat."

Rachael Ferro sometimes duels mandolins with Rideout, but her standout fiddle playing is a key ingredient in Moonshine Willy's sound. The classically trained Ferro's haunting playing is more Irish folk ballad than foot-stompin' backwoods fiddle--it weaves its lonely, melodic way above the boiling beats of the rest of the band.

Mike Luke brings a slapping bull fiddle and basso profundo harmonies to the mix, and drummer Chris Ganey's jazz background adds yet another layer of variety and sophistication to the group.

If Rideout's hellcat picking leans Moonshine Willy toward the hillbilly/country end of the spectrum, Doctor's dark, unadorned vocals keep them straddling the fence between tradition and innovation. Her simple style doesn't obscure the music, but she can rise into a croon or a yodel with thrilling effect.

Patsy Cline she is not, but Doctor's voice is perfectly suited to her honest, often sardonically comic lyrics. "June went insane by the time she was 9/killed her brother with a tire iron," Doctor sings in "River," off their second album, Bold Displays of Imperfection. Sounds morbid, but Moonshine Willy's rollicking rhythms redeem Doctor's wry lyrics with twisted exuberance.

Twisted exuberance? Sounds like real life to me, honestly.

Moonshine Willy plays on Tuesday (8pm) at Henfling's in Ben Lomond ($3 cover) and on Wednesday (9pm) at SC's Redroom (no cover).

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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