by Jordan Green

John Howie Jr. and Richard Boyd, classic country aficionados of the first order, are holding forth at the bar at the Garage, discussing Merle Haggard’s marijuana habit and important aspects of notable movies, including makeup, action, violence and superheroes. As the two aren’t scheduled to perform for another 20 minutes, the sound technician cues up some music, and kicks back behind the board with John Prine’s “Illegal Smile.” The barflies spend quite a bit of time on the Watchmen movie. “How about the fact that they left Hollis Mason’s death out of that movie,” Howie says. “They did film that scene. I wonder why they left that out.” Then he heads to the stage to confer with Boyd about their shared set. The sound technician, a wooly guy wearing a beard and a headband, gently nods his head to “Hello In There,” head buried in a book, drink stationed next to the board, and cigarette poised between fingers. Howie passes the bar on his way to the men’s room. “I just turned 40 on March third,” he says, clasping a crowlike hand to his chest, “and man, I feel it.” Howie and Boyd take turns playing their songs in twos. Boyd who ordinarily plays in a band called the bo-stevens, takes the first round. He sounds like a dead ringer for Dwight Yoakam and possesses a serviceable rhythm guitar technique. Wearing a blue cowboy shirt, white cowboy hat, black cowboy boots, jeans, prodigious belt buckle and his trademark sideburns, Howie sits at a stool during Boyd’s songs. When he bows his head, the hat completely obscures his face, and he sits still as a piece of furniture but for fingers tapping out the rhythm of Boyd’s songs on body of his guitar. It’s a time of departures for Howie, who turns a heartache song as deftly as any other singer in the state of North Carolina and someone who holds a reputation as one of the nicest guys in the business. His first-born is about to turn two. He and the boy’s mother have gone their separate ways, so they take turns keeping him. Also, Howie’s band of 12 years, the Two Dollar Pistols, dissolved in April. With about two years’ worth of songs under his belt, he has a new band called the Rosewood Bluff preparing to record with Southern Culture on the Skids’ Rick Miller at Kudzu Ranch in Mebane. Howie’s been telling people that the Rosewood Bluff’s sound is more steel-driven, more fluid, more like the Flying Burrito Brothers’ late ’60s West Coast sound than the hard twang and honky tonk of the Two Dollar Pistols. The warm gravel of his voice, an instrument that can be expansive as the Great Plains and jagged as a brokeback mountain, tells a million different variations on the metaphysics of breakup in song. And the songs have been coming in a steady flow lately because Howie’s muse is receptive to the nuances of life’s vicissitudes. “There’s a couple about kind of sort of the Pistols breaking up,” he’ll say, when we talk the next day. “Everything I write about is about some kind of relationship, whether a relationship is forming or dissolving, about the confusion that arises between two people. That’s what’s at the core of being alive to me. It’s confusing, frightening, disorienting and hard to deal with. My track record with relationships with women is not what you would call stellar. Even at 40, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on there. There’s a deep well of source material.” Howie’s voice fills the room at the Garage, and the 20 or so listeners sit at their tables transfixed. His voice caresses the lyric and then soars with the line, “Now you can watch me fall.” The song ends, and he breaks the tension. “As you can tell, it’s going to be a nice, uplifting evening,” he quips. “I write nothing but happy songs,” Boyd jokes. “I don’t know about you.” Howie’s songs are a grand tour of melodrama and heartache, one after the other, interspersed with his humble and funny commentary. “You think that’s sad,” he says. “We’ve got sad. And this one is where I invite you to my house. And that’s really sad.” He sings, “Take one last look darlin’, we’re running out of time,” and he endows it with the vocal filigree of Roy Orbison. His voice is strong and bold, if not always pretty. His guitar playing pulls back to a quiet reverie and then wails. “I don’t need your pity, and I damn sure don’t need your daily grind.” Boyd holds a forefinger to his lips and stares at the audience with eyebrows raised. How’s he gonna follow this one? “This is the time where we get to do the duet,” he says. “Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man.” Howie doesn’t miss a beat. “My dad’s from Mississippi,” he says, “so I get to be the man.”