The Fairlanes: years of roots rock

by Daniel Bayer

With the exception of a brief attempt to cash in on the short-lived ‘“Coyote Ugly’” fad, Plum Krazy’s has long been one of Greensboro’s premier biker bars. As one local once put it, they have little choice: They’re located next to a Harley dealership. Changes in ownership over the years have resulted in slight differences in the crowd that congregates there, however, a fact not lost on Fairlanes’ drummer/vocalist Chip ‘Memphis’ Click.

‘“Looks like an older crowd, and a little more country,’” says Click, noticing the cowboy hats mingling with the biker bandannas.

Chip and his musical partners, guitarist/vocalist Mark ‘BuddyRo’ Harrison and bassist Ken ‘Lil Kenny’ Graham, don’t show any signs of nervousness as they scope out the crowd, though. According to Click, the Fairlanes, in one form or another, have been around for 20 years, enough time to memorize a veritable South African mine shaft’s worth of diamond-in-the-rough covers, plus the odd original.

‘“I think it’s actually last year,’” says Harrison of the group’s 20th anniversary. ‘“I missed it.’”

The Fairlanes treat their history with the same irreverence they display on stage, where Harrison reminds the audience to tip the bartender, because, ‘“The more you drink the better we sound, and we’re not going to get any better looking.’” While tonight’s crowd may appreciate a more mainstream set list than the groups’ mix of rockabilly, Stax/Volt R&B and blues, they quickly win them over with minor tweaking of the song selection.

‘“We try to give the people what they want,’” says Click, ‘“just in small doses.’”

What they want tonight presumably includes a cover of ‘“Third Rate Romance,’” originally a hit in 1975 for the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and Merle Haggard’s ‘“Working Man Blues.’” A request for the bar band staple ‘“Sweet Home Alabama,’” however, goes unfilled.

‘“I tell them that one’s on the jukebox,’” says Click.

The Fairlanes were formed in 1985 after Harrison, a Thomasville native (‘“You want to slap me now or later?’” he jokes), returned to Greensboro in the early eighties after spending some time in Florida.

‘“[It was] Gary Collins on drums, Chris Carroll on bass and Kevin Wilson on keyboards,’” says Harrison. Click joined in 1990 and Graham a year later. The changes in the lineup also led to a change in musical direction, with the group moving away from Top 40 covers towards a more eclectic and original presentation.

‘“I used to play in a rockabilly band, and I sort of brought the rockabilly aspect into it,’” says Click, who sports a ’50s style pompadour and plays vintage Slingerland and Ludwig drums. ‘“Mark is more of an old school rock and blues guy, and Kenny likes bluegrass and country and Americana-type music, but he also likes old soul stuff. You listen to it in his bass playing. It’s more Duck Dunn than anything else, though if he heard me say that he would probably disagree.’”

Harrison, who began playing guitar after high school, says he learned to play by listening to records and jamming with fellow musicians.

‘“My dad, he managed the radio station in Thomasville,’” says Harrison. ‘“They played no pop music, so I got all the demo stuff and took it home. I’ve still got one at home. It’s a soul compilation record. It’s got autographs by Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Solomon Burke. I got a lot of stuff from those old records.’”

The result of these diverse tastes is a song selection that avoids the obvious clichés of the bar-band circuit in favor of the less traveled roads of popular music. On a given night the group is likely to play songs by New Wave singer/songwriter Elvis Costello (‘“The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes’”), rockabilly pioneer Johnny Burnett (‘“Tear it up’”), soul screamer Wilson Pickett (‘“Funky Broadway’”) and country legend Johnny Cash (‘“Get rhythm’”).

In 2001 the group released their first, and so far only, CD. Titled simply The Fairlanes, it’s a classic document of straight-no-chaser roots rock, featuring obscurities by relative unknowns (Dave Alvin’s ‘“Marie, Marie’”), obscurities by the very famous (Al Green’s ‘“I’m a Ram), old school rock n’roll (‘“Shake, Rattle & Roll’”), bawdy barroom double entendres (‘“I Want a Bowlegged Woman’”) and one ought-to-be-a-standard original, ‘“New Orleans Moon.’”

In their two decades together the group has played at most of the area’s well-known nightspots.

‘“We played Walker’s Which Way, the Rhino, Ritchy’s, and Blind Tiger over the years,’” says Click. ‘“We used to play the Wild Magnolia and the Red Lion. Just about any place that has been open any length of time, we played there at least once.’” The group has a residency at Fisher’s Grille on the second Tuesday of each month (Harrison’s side project, Kings & Peaches, holds the first Tuesday slot.)

‘“We just decided to play what we like to play,’” says Click. ‘“We play a lot of weird stuff, obscure covers, and most people seem to like it. We figure, if you’re going to learn a song, you better really like it, because you’re going to have to play it over and over again.’”

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