The following text was written by Bob Mehr, music critic for the Chicago Reader. He tells our story better than we do, so read on:
Their story sounds like some well-contrived publicity yarn: The left-handed guitarist who plays with his instrument strung upside down; the imposing punk veteran who sings spot-on Appalachian harmonies and drums like a mad dervish; a small army of gifted, outlandish bass players who.ve come and gone with a Spinal Tappish frequency. Remarkably, though, it.s not fiction; it.s Flathead.
To music fans outside the Grand Canyon state, Phoenix.s Flathead is more a legend than a band. A musical fixture in the desert for more than a decade, Flathead have rarely toured outside their native southwest. Yet their brand of blazing boom-chicka country, fevered roadhouse, and impeccably crafted catalog of trad inspired tunes have made them one of the most significant, if overlooked, roots acts to emerge from Arizona in a generation. The fact that they.re still performing, as musically potent and popular as ever, nearly 13 years after first forming is testimony of that.
Although there have been half a dozen lineups in the band.s history, the Flathead story begins and ends with singer/guitarist Greg Swanholm. A native of Chandler, Swanholm.s zeal for music didn't develop until an unusually late age. .My dad had a really great eight-track collection when I was a kid,. he recalls. .Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and I always grew up with that stuff in the background and always liked it. But there was quite a long period where I never bought any records. I mean, I can't really remember buying my first record until I was 22 . and that was a result of seeing the Varmits and the Geezers..
The Varmits, Grant and the Geezers and Hellfire (the latter two groups led by Phoenix wildman rocker Kevin Daly) were some of the leading lights of the Valley.s fertile .80s roots music scene. Witnessing the passion and energy of those bands firsthand had a profound effect on the would-be guitarist. .Those guys made it real to me,. says Swanholm. .I would go to clubs and I.d see guys like Kevin Daly playing. And when you see guys doing it up-close, all of a sudden it becomes real, and that.s when I started buying records..
Setting off on what would become a crash course in American roots music, Swanholm began to familiarize himself with the acknowledged masters of the form. .I got my Gene Vincent, I got my Farmer Boys, Eddie Cochran, the Burnette Brothers, Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef . all of them. But I still had no intention of playing at all. My only intention was to get deeper and deeper into this music and learn as much about it as I could and see the local guys as much as I could..
Swanholm.s informal musical education was interrupted by the demands of real life as he left Phoenix, heading south to Tucson to study computer science at the University of Arizona. By the time he returned to the Valley in the late .80s, the thriving cowpunk/retrobilly scene that he.d left behind had all but disappeared. .I came back and Hellfire was gone, and the Varmits had fractured into three different bands, all of which I liked, but still, it just wasn.t the same. Nobody was doing anything like what had been going on before,. he says.
The quaint, dusty dives that had once made up the Phoenix rock and roots circuit were being replaced by new venues situated around the ASU campus. Tempe was quickly emerging as the new focal point for live music where a new scene, spearheaded by the jangle-pop sound of bands like the Gin Blossoms and the Feedbags, was developing.
This turn of events led Swanholm to one inevitable conclusion. .With all that was going on, I thought, .Shit, something.s gotta happen here,. and when it didn.t, that.s when I decided that I wanted to learn how to play and start a band,. Swanholm says. .So to get my chops, I started out with [Johnny Cash guitarist] Luther Perkins, who I remembered from my youth, and who to me is still the premiere guitar player. There are a lot of guys out there that I love, but Luther is still the foundation of it all..
Perkins. deceptively simple picking patterns are clearly the basis for Swanholm's guitar style . although the legendary Cash sideman wasn.t the inspiration for the guitarist.s highly unorthodox technique. Unlike most natural left-handed players who restring the guitar so that the lower strings are on top, Swanholm . who says he simply didn.t know any better at the time . left the strings the way they were, essentially upside down, and began his informal training from there. He proved a quick study, advancing rapidly from simple honky-tonk licks to the more fully realized West Coast picking of Roy Nichols and Jimmy Bryant.
For Swanholm, the experience of learning how to play so late in life wasn.t the result of any savant-like ability but rather a deep desire to emulate the sounds he had heard since his youth. .It was just the most basic thing, really: Find the big string and hit it as often as possible. Just like a lab rat pulling a lever. Just thump it and try and make it work. And then things kind of progressed from there . or digressed, whichever way you want to put it..
Determined to start his own band, Swanholm.s search for like-minded musicians led to drummer Vince Ramirez, whom he.d met at a John Doe show in late 1991. A veteran of traditional Mexican and Latin-influenced punk groups back in his native Kansas (where his bandmates also included future BR5-49 founder Chuck Mead), Ramirez arrived in Arizona in 1986. Briefly hooking up with a pair of local pop groups (including the Violent Femmes-influenced Soul Touch Skin), a frustrated Ramirez gave up music for more than five years. His desire to play was rekindled when Swanholm finally approached him in early 1992 with the opportunity to play the kind of raw roots music he.d also been weaned on as child via his parents record collection. The two immediately established a template for the Flathead sound, with Ramirez.s blustery trap work and train whistle harmonies girding Swanholm.s hot-rodded country originals.
In early 1993, the group expanded to a three-piece adding local rockabilly hellcat Ruth Wilson on bass. With the engaging Wilson on board Flathead rapidly became a popular local draw. While the rest of city was busy trying to follow the Gin Blossom.s platinum path to pop success, Flathead carved out its own corner in the musical landscape, and along with fellow country revivalists like the Ramblers, Grievous Angles and Suicide Kings, helped reignite Phoenix.s long dormant roots scene.
After a couple years of fits and starts the band finally released its home recorded debut, the self-tiled Flathead, in 1996 on Dave Ramsey.s Tempe-based Truxton Records label. The quaint, nostalgic sonic aesthetic of the record . produced by the band and engineer Dan Nelson . was something Swanholm admits was far from intentional. .We recorded all the instruments together in my living room, but the singing was recorded in the kitchen,. he says, .and we had mike cords running to an amp that was in the bathroom in the bathtub to get that extra tile reverb..
Swanholm says that the D.I.Y. attitude that had sparked his desire to form the group in the first place was the main factor in the charmingly roughhewn quality of the debut. .We just thought, .Shoot, we have these songs and we might as well get them out.. But we had no idea what we were doing as far as production and technique goes . in the fine Phoenix tradition of Lee Hazlewood..
As Ramirez notes, .The [makeshift studio] ended up having so much reverb we had to use pillows just to try and deaden the space, .cause it sounded so weird..
Despite the comical recording setup, Flathead is a sprite collection of instrumentals (the galloping jangler .Buckshot.), covers (the trad .Tennessee Stud.) and hillbilly-flavored originals like the cheeky "Alcohaulin" and the instant classic "Lordy Mercy." The album.s 14 songs also showcase the band.s musical breadth, with tracks ranging from the mournful .Red Sky Waltz. to a blistering pass at the Willis Brothers. .40 Acre,. which remains a concert staple.
While the record found a decent local audience (and enough of a national one that the group was asked to contribute to the 1997 Bloodshot compilation Straight Outta' Boone County) the group was itching to make its way into a proper studio to record its sophomore album.
But Flathead.s second record would have to wait for more than two years and multiple changes within the band. First, the group split with the talented but troubled Wilson. As for her departure, Swanholm noted in 1999, .It was just a parting of the ways, like a mutual thing, basically. Well, maybe it wasn.t so mutual, but it was something that just had to happen. Actually, Vince and I had decided to disintegrate the whole thing at that point. It was only a couple of months after that when I called him up and said, .Hey, I got a couple more songs . let.s just try and sing them for the hell of it.. Sure enough, we got together, and it was right there again..
Needing a bassist, Swanholm didn.t have to look much further than Kevin Daly. The former Geezers and Hellfire mainman was then playing with a variety of local combos like Apocalypso, Occult 45 and Poontwang. Recruiting one of Swanholm.s early inspirations into the band turned out to be the perfect move, and brought the whole project full circle.
With Daly on board, the group rechristened itself D-Liar and ended up playing under the moniker for a couple months, including a well-received set at the 1998 South by Southwest music conference in Austin. The name, however, did not stick. .No one had any idea it was us when we.d play shows,. laughs Ramirez. .People were like, .If I knew it was you guys, I would have come out.. Eventually, the trio reverted back to the name Flathead and soon reestablished itself with a series of barely hinged concert performances that made their reputation as a must-see live act.
An even more positive turn came later that year when a mutual friend played a copy of Flathead for noted Tempe producer/engineer Clarke Rigsby, who was instantly taken with the group's offbeat blend of traditional styles. The group was ecstatic that Rigsby, who boasted some impressive country music credentials of his own . including Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell and Lee Hazlewood . was interested in working with them.
The result of that collaboration was Play the Good One (Truxton). Released in the summer of 1999, the 13-song album surveyed some of the most rugged terrain within the landscape of postwar country music, drawing on the sound and spirit of everything from the Farmer Boys to Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
With Rigsby at the helm, a subtle but critical aspect of the group.s sound, all but forgotten amid the somewhat ramshackle recording of their debut, was properly restored. .In our live shows, there.s always been a lot of vocal harmonizing going on, and that.s a big part of the music and the sound that we have. So we really wanted to feature that a lot more on the second record than on the first one,. says Ramirez. .The first time, it was something that we really didn.t concentrate on. We were just trying to play and put something on tape. But for [Play the Good One] we knew that we really wanted to capture that part of the band..
Swanholm.s deft songwriting touch is also on display, as he manages to capture the intricate subtleties of classic country music without ever slipping into parody. The disc.s slow-grooving opener, .Hitched,. and the homespun bounce of .Can.t Complain. are the kinds of songs that most alt-country groups would turn into overly muscular bar rock, while in Swanholm.s hands they are given a note-perfect traditional treatment.
As evidenced by the album.s cover artwork . a Hatch style illustration of an 18-wheeler . and roadweary nuggets like .10-Rodge. and .Black Road. a pervasive trucking influence also played a major role in the recording; the music of rig-rock pioneers like Dave Dudley and Red Simpson having long held special meaning for Swanholm. .Trucking music had that same kind of guitar tone that turned me on as a kid,. he says. .Luther Perkins and some of that early Don Rich stuff with Buck Owens, those guys were playing straight through tube amps, and it just had that .sound.. And, of course, we were already very familiar with that stuff, so it seemed really natural..
Tracks such as .Dead & Change,. .By and By. and .Long White Line. also owe much to the speed and velocity (not to mention the vocal harmonies) of traditional bluegrass, particularly the nexus at which rig rock and bluegrass meet in the music of the Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse. Meanwhile, both Daly.s atomic-zombie narrative .Mutant Daddy. and Swanholm.s barroom escape anthem .Pass the Time. revel in the cheeky wordplay and outr