What is real country music? Ask Halden Wofford
For a relatively brief period in the mid-’90s, Halden Wofford drew the assignment of singing Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson covers with a Denver outfit called the Crosstie Walkers. “It was pretty horrible,” said Wofford of those days. Not that Wofford had anything against country music. But the slicked-up, dumbed-down style that gets played on country radio these days is such a far cry from the country sounds that Wofford favors that it makes him weep tears in his beer.”It all sounds like Celine Dion to me,” he said. “It’s sad, actually. There are so many amazingly accomplished, soulful musicians in Nashville – and you never get to hear about them.”Instead, Wofford has had to hear about the new wave of country singers who seem to be as focused on how they look on television as how well they write or sing. He brings up a recent front-page story in The Denver Post about country music’s resurgence, and laughs sardonically as he notes that a good portion of the article is devoted to the new wave of country artists who are having their teeth fixed.”It’s disturbing what they’re talking about,” said Wofford, whose conversation is punctuated by frequent, friendly, high-energy laughter. “How they’re television-friendly, how they’ve had cosmetic surgery on their teeth. I have nothing against 23-year-olds who are beautiful and want to be superstars. But you ask them who Bob Wills was, and they don’t know. And it’s kind of sad.”Wofford, on the other hand, has Bob Wills practically in his blood. Wofford grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, “home of Ernest Tubb, Roger Miller and Bob Wills,” he said. “That’s where they got their starts, anyway.”As a kid in Fort Worth, Wofford heard his father sing in the church choir, and had Johnny Cash’s gospel-leaning material practically shoved into his ears by his mother. What made an even bigger impression was his grandfather who, according to Wofford, “worked in a slaughterhouse, smoked cigars, played dominoes and listened to Lefty Frizzell – the best country singer ever – and Ernest Tubb.” None of it rubbed off on Wofford, however, at least not right away. Wofford listened to AC/DC and Van Halen, like everyone else in suburban central Texas in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “You couldn’t escape it,” he explained.Wofford has played piano and drums from an early age. But by the time he was a young adult, he had moved in a different artistic direction. Wofford studied fine art at the Rhode Island School of Design. He moved to Colorado in 1988 and spent most of a year as an artist-in-residence at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, where he studied painting. But he soured on the visual art world: “It had a lot to do with money, and how galleries worked,” he said. So Wofford turned his attention back to music.This time, country music was speaking to him. “It just had such a resonance – Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr. – there was such a punk-rock following of that kind of music,” he said. “It was the emotional purity of the music. It’s straightforward, no messing around. It was like hearing the Ramones or the Sex Pistols for the first time, but in a more American way.”I started going to this place, Ralph’s Top Shop, a cabinet shop. And one room was devoted to bluegrass, with all these old guys sitting around. We played Ray Price and Buck Owens tunes all night long.”Wofford began playing folky, country music in bars around Denver, and eventually drifted into the nightmare gig with the Crosstie Walkers. After the inevitable demise of that band, Wofford picked up the pieces and created a rootsier, more original band, Halden Wofford & the Hi-Beams. (Until then, Wofford had gone by his given name, Brett, which he still uses offstage. He took the name Halden from his grandfather, in a tribute to his country music roots.) The Hi-Beams started as a drummerless quartet, playing bluegrassy versions of country songs. Three years ago, the band added a drummer and adapted a more traditional country sound. The band has one album, an eponymous CD from 2002, and is at work on a second. Wofford says the Hi-Beams – who headline Basalt River Days, with a festival-closing set on Sunday, Aug. 15, at 5:30 p.m. in Basalt’s Arbaney Park, following last month’s main-stage gig at Carbondale Mountain Fair – play a sound that leans far in the direction of Western swing. If you play Western swing, the association with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys is unavoidable. But Wofford says a more apt comparison is to Wills’ lesser-known brother, Billy Jack Wills, who played a wilder brand of country that hinted at early rock ‘n’ roll.”We love that period when Western swing and honky-tonk were just bordering on rockabilly,” said singer and rhythm guitarist Wofford, who has assembled a Hi-Beams lineup – steel guitarist Bret Billings, bassist Ben O’Connor, drummer Damon Smith and lead guitarist Schochet – that has been steady, and increasingly busy, for nearly a year. “There was Billy Jack Wills, Bob’s brother, and he had really hot musicians, into jump blues and some jazz. It was really hot music.”Wofford and his mates are making the music even a little hotter. Instead of playing pure Western swing, the Hi-Beams allow some of their other influences to seep into the sound.”We’re all well into our 30s, so no one can get away from the rock ‘n’ roll when they were teenagers, a lot of the punk rock of the late ’80s and ’90s,” said the 38-year-old Wofford.Wofford says the Hi-Beams are in demand these days. They have had just one weekend off this summer, and usually play three or four nights a week. It’s not enough to support Wofford yet, so he still takes jobs as an illustrator. But even his illustrating work reveals where his heart lies. His first book, not due out till 2006, is an illustrated work for children titled “Long Gone Lonesome History of Country Music.” You can be sure it won’t contain a single reference to Garth Brooks. Kreg Viesselman has spent a good number of years figuring out what he doesn’t want to do. The first thing to be dismissed was fine art, which Viesselman studied at college in Iowa. After spending some years in Maine, playing in a jam band called The Kane Reunion, he decided he didn’t want anything to do with Maine, jam music or even bands.”I loved it right away. At the beginning, you get all that juice,” said the 31-year-old Viesselman. “But I didn’t want to go in the New England jam-band direction; it had been done already with Phish.”And playing in a band is hard. You can’t make money, and you don’t necessarily get to play the music you want to play, and it’s like having five girlfriends. And I wanted to leave Maine.”So in 1999, Viesselman pulled up stakes and headed West, landing in Jamestown, in between Nederland and Estes Park. On the way, he transformed himself into a solo act, accompanying his singing with acoustic guitar and harmonica. In 2000, he released his first solo CD, “Many Rivers,” a folky singer-songwriter effort. “At that time, I was living in my car, and hitchhiking,” said Viesselman. “I had come from this louder music, this more stressful life. And I went in the opposite direction.”With his eponymous CD two years later, however, Viesselman was more in the vein of a bluesman, with a gruffer voice and sounds that seemed to emanate from the Delta.The solo-musician mold seems to fit Viesselman. His CDs have earned favorable reviews, and he has appeared at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and other prominent stages in the West. On Friday, Aug. 13, he plays Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, having appeared at Main Street Bakery earlier in the week. Leading the life of a troubadour suits him perfectly. Viesselman has lived in his car, traveled through Europe, been without an address, and has no problems with such rootlessness.”I really enjoy traveling alone,” said Viesselman, whose last stretch of traveling ended in his native southern Minnesota, which he calls home for the moment. “There’s a sparse quality to the solo musician thing, the life. From the anthropological aspect, if you travel with six people, you spend your time with those six people. You don’t check out the local place and people where you’re traveling.”Viesselman is in the midst of recording his third CD, in Boulder. And it’s gradually dawning on him what he wants to become: nothing. That is, a musician with no labels, no categories.”Now I’m getting to a phase where I’m less folky, a little greasier sound,” he said. “So I don’t get stuck in the folk category. So I’m known as someone who writes songs, and can do them any way. To be known as nothing, really. “Like Randy Newman – he’s not known as anything in particular. He’s just known for his songs. I like to do what a song asks for, rather than make it fit whatever I happen to be doing at the time.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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