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Silicon Country

Bobby Black
Christopher Gardner

Fingers of Steel: Bobby Black's talented digits ride the strings of the steel guitar for the California Cowboys.

At San Jose's Saddle Rack, the California Cowboys prove that Nashville doesn't own a monopoly on real country music

By Christopher Weir

THE CALIFORNIA COWBOYS are tearing through "Thattaway, Jose," an original drinking song that threatens to burn down San Jose's cavernous Saddle Rack. "Thattaway, Jose, looks like another perfect night," sings R.W. Smith, his voice perched between a growl and a twang. "Way to go, Cuervo, a little taste of old Mexico." Steel guitarist Bobby Black and lead guitarist Gary Potterton trade a few searing licks as the dance floor roils with Stetsons and Wranglers.

Silicon Valley never sounded--or looked--so country.

A woman clad in cowgirl garb climbs atop a mechanical bull and is promptly dispatched. And how does that feel? "It's so super," says the brave soul, Vikki, who is celebrating a bachelorette party with her daughter and friends. "It's like you're in outer space or something."

And what about the band? "The band?" Vikki asks. "They're awesome."

the California Cowboys
Christopher Gardner

Men in Hats: For the California Cowboys, there's more to country music than the gimmicks of Nashville product.

AWESOME, INDEED. Local favorites and Saddle Rack stalwarts (they play there monthly), the California Cowboys not only are armed with a fusillade of memorable new songs but also boast a recording deal that promises to catch serious attention in industry circles. No strangers to the local circuit, the Cowboys are emerging from an odyssey that has been neither short nor easy.

If their big break beckons, there won't be any talk of luck. Because, as any enduring musician knows, perseverance doesn't suffer luck.

Last April, the band's perseverance struck gold when the California Cowboys won the Northern California Independent Music World Series at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. Included in the $25,000 prize were the resources for the production and promotion of a major-label-quality CD. The band will begin recording at San Francisco's Music Annex next month.

"This is going to be a shot in the arm," says Smith--the band's founder and principal songwriter--between sets. "I think it's going to make some major labels turn their heads."

Until then, the California Cowboys will continue to do what they do best: unleash rollicking live performances across the South Bay and beyond. Smith is dead serious when he says, "San Jose is the hotbed for country music on the West Coast." Then, as if to punctuate the incongruity of that observation, he adds, "I don't exactly know why."

Smith's musical journey began in Castro Valley, where he started writing songs at the age of 12. "I grew up listening to country music," he tells me, citing Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell among his early influences. "My dad's from Arkansas, and I listened to country radio working in his upholstery shop. The music was always a part of my life."

After forays into rock music, Smith returned to his country roots with the formation, a dozen years ago, of the Lost Highway Band. The band evolved into the California Cowboys and now features a lineup of seasoned musicians: Black (a former member of Barbara Mandrell's band who has been playing the steel guitar for nearly 50 years), Potterton, bassist Cary Atkinson and drummer Hal Atkinson. The band's self-titled debut CD, released last year, also features musicians on loan from Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

Still, the transition from stage to studio wasn't easy. "It's like an operating room, it's so sterile," Smith says. "The hard part is taking our band and, in the studio, trying to capture what we sound like on stage. We haven't been able to do that yet. But that will change with this next project."

R. W. Smith
Christopher Gardner

In the Saddle: R. W. Smith leads the way at a recent Cowboys' show in San Jose.

ON STAGE, the California Cowboys wield their songs with crisp musicianship and obvious charisma. The guitar interplay is masterful, the rhythm section solid. In a genre increasingly populated with prima donnas and hired guns, it's heartening to see a band like the California Cowboys brokering such sonic cohesiveness.

Ironically, the band's songs employ far more in the way of traditional instrumentations and harmonic structures than most of the "product" coming out of Nashville these days. In an era when Vince Gill sounds like Celine Dion, it's increasingly clear that Texas and the West Coast must carry the country torch.

Although the Cowboys hybridize traditional honky-tonk music with pop country, they also manage to maintain a signature style, one that evokes just a hint of rootsy rock & roll. On "Way Out in Waco," for example, Smith's twangy balladeering is integrated with a chorus that yields echoes of the Eagles. And on "We Ride 'Em, We Rope 'Em," Motown-style horns are somehow seamlessly grafted onto a barroom stomp.

The California Cowboys don't sound anything like Dwight Yoakam, but they demonstrate a similar facility to incorporate diverse influences in a pure country dialect. Their songs possess enough hooks to grace any airwaves, but the overall package is more innovative than imitative.

"If you're true to the music, that's the reward," Smith says. "And if by some chance you're successful and your sound is commercial, then that's the best of both worlds. Sure, you can be true to your music and sound like some old hick and not sell a single record. Some guys are happy with that. But it is a business. So if you can be true to yourself and be true to your music and still be commercial, then that's the ideal situation."

But while writing songs is one thing, image maintenance is another, especially when you're a local fixture on the Bay Area country scene.

"Yeah, some people say, 'Oh, the California Cowboys, we've heard them before," Smith admits. "It's hard to remain fresh and stay on top. But we've managed to do that, and it's through the help of fans who've supported us all along. It's tough trying to make it in the music business, and there are a lot of heartbreaks. But when you hop on stage, it just clears your mind. Everything disappears."

BY MIDNIGHT at the Saddle Rack, the California Cowboys have slowed things down with "Let Go of My Heart." The Stetsons are now brim to brim while tears fall into beers (are the tears because of the song's dolorous entreaties or the $3.50 bottles of Budweiser?).

The big hair and too-tight denim are enough to make any urban hipster conjure a cynical smirk. But this is the real world, not MTV's Real World. If you want to smirk, then get the hell out. Because there's a line to get in, and it's forming from all walks of life.

"We need some more drinking songs!" howls Smith, launching the raucous "Double Shot of Hank," which is followed by the sure-fire hit "I Want to Be Loved by You."

Tonight, the California Cowboys are a soundtrack to several peripheral activities: the mechanical bull, the pick-up lines, the pool table. They are proving that there's a very fine line between being an attraction and being the attraction.

As things wind down at the Saddle Rack, so do the California Cowboys, at least for a moment. Smith probably speaks for more than a few lovelorn souls in the crowd as he sings the ballad "Let Go of My Heart."

And perhaps if country music would let go of his heart, Smith would get some rest from all the gigs, promotions and songwriting. But it doesn't, so he won't. Somewhere on the road to "making it," the means have become the end.

Well, almost.

"I want to make records," Smith says later. "That's the bottom line."

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro.

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