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New West

Big Sandy and his boys Fly-Rite

By Gretchen Giles

WHATEVER YOU DO, just don't call it country," the editor growled. OK. Howsabout New Country? Nope. Because the bebopping, finger popping, clear-as-an-East-Texas-sky-after-a-hurricane sound of Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys ain't country. At least no country that would grant Garth Brooks a visa.

Call it Texas Swing, even if it does come from the mouse-eared panhandle of Anaheim, Calif. Drenched in the pure western sound of folk, bluegrass, Cajun, and mariachi styles synthesized by the legendary Bob Wills, Big Sandy and his boys fly right by the poseur high-moussed hair and washable tattoos of such '80s rockabilly phenoms as the Stray Cats into an aerie all their own where music is to dance to and words can make you cry.

Using vintage instruments and decked out in kerchiefs and pearl-snap shirts, this quintet--appearing May 30 at the Inn of the Beginning--looks easy to dismiss as just another cynical retro-band that gets cheap thrills and big bucks by sticking their pointed little tongues out at musical styles that past generations fell in love to.

But it listens different.

Swingin' West (High Tone), the band's latest disc produced by ex-Blaster Dave Alvin (its last--Jumpin' from 6 to 6--is also an Alvin production), is nothing if not authentic. Featuring few cover songs, Swingin' concentrates on Sandy's witty songwriting skills and on the straight-ahead musicianship of a band that loves its genre to the extent that it insisted on recording the tracks in Capitol's famous Studio "B," home to Gene Vincent and other greats.

Reached by phone at his Anaheim home during a brief touring respite, Robert Williams--a well-fed man, he became nicknamed Big Sandy through his favored wearing of an uncle's coat, the pocket embroidered with the name Sandy--grew up listening to the jump-country sounds of his parents' record collection. "Then I came up through the rockabilly scene of the early '80s," he remembers, "and played in a lot of different bands."

Turned off by the ersatz practitioners of the L.A. club scene, Williams searched for a particular sound, harking back to the grand old days when microphones were an expensive indulgence. "A lot of bands need to mike every little sound," he muses. "You know, mikes all over the drums and stuff like that. We don't think that is necessary. We like the sound that we get, and people always come up to us after shows and ask us about it."

And ask they might, particularly those fans who were first introduced to Big Sandy and the boys when they toured with British mope-rock king Morrissey in 1992. "It was kind of hard at first," Williams admits, "but as the tour went on, it just got better and better. There were some fans who didn't like us at all, but once they realized that [Morrissey] had asked us to join him, they started to loosen up. And you know," he says wonderingly, "there were some kids who came to every show, all across the country. They just followed the tour. And some of them still come to our shows."

Because that's the thing about Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys. Even emaciated self-haters with pale skin and rusty black clothes, who fervently think that meat is murder and that "kill uncle" is a terrific directive, dig this band. "We get all kinds of people coming to our shows," Williams shrugs. "From punks to people who like alternative country to true country fans."

But just what is the crossover appeal? Williams pauses. "We just try to be real honest."


Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys shake the stage at the Inn of the Beginning on Thursday, May 30, at 9 p.m. 8201 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. $5. 664-1100.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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