Hank mighta done it this way
Though separated by in age by at least two decades, Rodney Owen and Stephen Corbett share a rebellious hybridizing instinct that has carried across several generations of American popular music: The urge to soil the sterility of pompous rock music and upturn the pious sentimentality of country and western.
Their tradition goes back to at least the late 1960s, when Gram Parsons introduced heartbreak honky-tonk and country soul to the southern California rock scene. It runs through the 1980s when Jason & the Scorchers, Rank and File and Uncle Tupelo in their various ways melded incendiary punk rock with traditionalist twang, paving the way for the alternative country movement of the 1990s.
“In the seventies we were into Jerry Jeff Walker when everybody else was playing Yes,” says Owen, bass player for the High Point honky-tonk rock and roll outfit the Hot Carls. “When I heard Gram Parsons, it blew the top of my head off.”
The band’s singer and rhythm guitar player Stephen Corbett, who goes by the stage name of Señor Ellis Diablo, adds: “I got into it through Steve Earle. I always listened to the Rolling Stones. My mom was into straight-up country. My uncle was dating a chick that was into Prince.”
After Corbett’s holy trinity of “Prince, [George] Jones and the Stones” was cemented, his family moved from Charleston, SC to nearby Johns Island, and the budding musician transferred into a predominantly black high school. He quickly immersed himself in gangsta rap, and still later schooled himself in grunge long after Kurt Cobain’s suicidal coup de grace.
Tonight, during a Tuesday slot reserved for offbeat bands not ready to contend for the cover-heavy weekend shifts in Greensboro’s live music scene, the second incarnation of the Hot Carls makes its raunchy debut at the Clubhouse, a beer and pool hideaway near Guilford College. They launch into a ragged and deafening cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” Bill Comstock fairly assaults his drum kit. Shawn Patch dispatches expository lead guitar lines. Owen imposes a throbbing and fluid bass line. And Corbett leads the band with his warbling and agitated vocals.
Later, as the band rolls through Hank Williams’ brooding “Ramblin’ Man,” Corbett’s eyebrows arch demonically and his eyes flash with laser-like intensity. The Hot Carls transform the George Jones’ honky-tonk classic “You Better Treat Your Man Right” into a snarling punk anthem. The band also barrels through a batch of originals, including “Groovin’ In the Backseat,” “Smirnoff Morning” and “Dirty Girl.” Altogether, they incorporate Stones country honk, rural balladry, tortured soul arpeggios and double-bass drum propulsion.
The Hot Carls’ original songs hew to a classic narrative of debauched living cast within the crucible of Southern romantic excess – a line developed by novelist Harry Crews, along with Jones and Earle that has become somewhat clichéd, yet remains compelling and frightening all the same. “It’s another Smirnoff morning, Jack Daniels afternoon, and cocaine in the middle of the night,” Corbett sings. “A hundred miles from Tuscaloosa, a thousand miles out of my mind, with a girl who looks like you behind the wheel.”
They’ve made a promising second attempt after a false start last summer that ended with the band disintegrating after a disastrous gig in Charleston in November. They had a slot opening for Joey Alcorn, a hard-core honky-tonk act with national exposure. It should have been the Hot Carls’ moment.
“Everybody showed up blitzed,” Corbett recalls. “The drummer was awful. We politely asked him to leave in the middle of the set. Then the bass player walked out. It ended with me and the other guitarist playing some songs together. The last words I said were, ‘Shit happens, and it certainly happened tonight.'”
The humiliation of that show was coupled with a personal encounter of sustaining grace for Corbett, however. A Hot Carls demo was passed along to Chris Etheridge, who played in the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons more than three decades ago. Summoned by the legendary country-rock bass player, Corbett made a pilgrimage to Meridian, Miss.
“The first thing he said is, ‘What the hell do you want to know about Gram Parsons?'” Corbett recalls. “I said, ‘Nothing. If I wanted to know about Gram Parsons, I would have gone to Florida, where his family is.’ We spent the first hour looking at his garden and talking about plants. Then he goes into his bedroom and brings out this homemade CD of the Flying Burrito Brothers opening for the Grateful Dead in 1969. He says, ‘You wanna hear this?’ Me and Chris ended up playing an impromptu show in Meridian with me on acoustic guitar. He calls himself ‘the hippie from Mississippi.'”
As for the band’s name, Corbett does not deny that in addition to blistering honky-tonk it also refers to a particular act of sexual kink involving defecation, but insists that he settled on it by innocent means.
“The wife and I were watching ‘South Park,'” he says. “There’s an episode where Mr. Garrison asks the children, ‘Can any of you give me the name of a sexual position?’ And this kid yells out, ‘Hot Carl!’ My wife turned to me and said, ‘That sounds like the guy who changes your oil. You should name your band that.’ I thought, ‘I need to familiarize myself with [the term], just in case someone asks me.’
“A friend of mine said it should be our name because we’re gonna shit on the world of music,” he adds.
For all Corbett’s scatological preoccupations, he is also a young man of reverence – when it comes to honky-tonk heroes.
“Do you know how you felt when you met Hank Williams?” he recalls asking George Jones after a concert. The country legend nodded.
“Well that’s the way I feel now, so go easy on me,” Corbett continued.
Jones smiled, draped his arm around his acolyte, and they had their picture taken together.
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