In the early '90s, John Howie began preaching the gospel of country music in the Triangle, both from behind the counter of the gone-but-not-forgotten Poindexter Records on Durham's Ninth Street and behind the mic on the Sunday morning radio show "Heartaches and Hangovers," which aired on Duke's WXDU. When Howie wasn't pointing you toward the new Porter Wagoner or Stoney Edwards collection, he was spinning Wanda Jackson and George Jones cuts. And, since 1996, he's continued these good works as the frontman--and the one constant--in North Carolina's finest country band, the Two Dollar Pistols.
The idea for the Two Dollar Pistols began to germinate when Howie was still enjoying the first phase of his musical life as the drummer for Finger, Soccer, June, and other excellent area bands with one-word names. In '95, when June was in Nashville for a month recording their I Am Beautiful album, Howie found himself with a lot of free time; he filled it by writing songs on an acoustic guitar.
"They knew I loved country music," Howie says of his then-bandmates, adding with his big, infectious laugh, "I remember telling them that at one of the first meetings. 'What do you like?' 'Well, I'm really into Merle Haggard and stuff like that. Just so you know before we get into that van together'" The others apparently were not frightened: I Am Beautiful's closing track was a powerhouse, art-country take on Roger Miller's "I'll Pick Up My Heart and Go Home," sung by Howie. It also turned out to be a road sign pointing to Howie's new direction.
"I just got tired of writing songs and trying to make them not sound like country songs," Howie stated in a 1999 interview, when asked about the origins of the Pistols. "I always felt more comfortable singing along to Lefty Frizzell records or whatever than singing along with New York Dolls records, as much as I love that music." Thus, when it came time for Howie to form his own band, it was to be much more Johnny Paycheck than Johnny Thunders, which, in late '95, was a riskier notion than it is these days. Howie speaks the truth when he says, "Back then, it was kind of a big deal. We had no idea how we were going to be received." That said, he's also quick to acknowledges the influence of a Backsliders show he saw in the early '90s, back when the Backsliders were a stripped-down, pedal-steel-blessed outfit playing Buck Owens' "Close Up the Honky Tonks" and a number of Flying Burrito Brothers tunes. "The idea that any one even close to my age was playing those songs was incredible," explains Howie. "Kind of like what people say who were around when punk rock was really happening, you know, 'I never thought I could be in a band until I saw the Sex Pistols.' Honestly, that's kind of the effect it had on me as far as playing country music, because I didn't think it was something that was even conceivable."
It takes Howie a minute to remember the original members of the Two Dollar Pistols, every one of them a moonlighter, underscoring the humble, busman's-holiday beginnings of the band. You had Jolene's Bill Ladd on pedal steel, Pat McGraw (of the Uncrowned Nashville Kings and the power-popping Gladhands) on bass, and June's John Price on guitar, joined by a pair of Squirrel Nut Zippers--drummer Chris Phillips and Jon Kemppainen on fiddle. Chapel Hill's venerable Cave was the scene of quite a few of their early shows, with the hat getting passed to more and more folks with each Pistols' appearance. For fans (like myself) of country-influenced rock--Jason and the Scorchers, the Beat Farmers, The Silos, Uncle Tupelo--Howie and company coaxed us into exploring the country side, introducing us to Miller's brilliant honky-tonk songs, to Bobby Bare and Hank Cochran, to "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down" and "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)."
In the years that followed, the Two Dollar Pistols played shows with a variety of line-ups (ex-Backslider Steve Howell was even a short-term member) and released a true variety pack of recordings. Their debut, On Down the Track, boasted vintage-sounding Howie originals such as "Bring the Heartbreak" and "Let Me Be Your Fool" surrounding Tom T. Hall's "I Flew Over Our House Last Night" and the Miller/Faron Young cowrite "A World So Full of Love." There's also the live Step Right Up, and a wonderful EP of duets with Tift Merritt, plus several compilation appearances. And an appetite-whetting single released last fall featured the Johnny Cash-recorded, Billy Edd Wheeler-penned "Blistered," which felt like a custom-made showcase for Howie's thunderclap of a voice.
But it was the single's flip side, "When You Had Time for Me," sounding at times sounds like a doo wop ballad trying to bust out of a C&W shell, that best set the stage for the Two Dollar Pistols' brand new full-length, You Ruined Everything. "When You Had Time for Me" was the first Pistols' song to stray from the band's Bakersfield-honoring, true honky-tonk sound, and a number of songs on engage in similar wanderings. "Gettin' Gone" comes off like a perfect combination of Western beat and Merseybeat, with the occasional Byrdsy echo courtesy of ace guitarist Scott McCall's 12-string. "You've Grown Tired of Me" is a testament to Howie's love of country soul, and "All I Can Think of You," a real charmer, is chock full of Roger Miller-ish playfulness. Howie's voice has always been an attention-getting instrument thanks to its power and warmth, but You Ruined Everything highlights its previously under-explored versatility.
Of course, Howie will be the first to tell you that this is far from a one-man show; he can't wait to talk about his fellow Pistols. "I'm just thrilled to be playing with Scott and Neal (bassist Spaulding) and Mark (drummer Weaver). I don't know, that sounds like I just read it off a press release or something, but it really is true," Howie says both with a laugh and an air of conviction. "They're three of my best friends. They play the songs extraordinarily well. They understand where I'm coming from. I can reference all different kinds of music and they'll understand what I'm saying--'I want kind of a "Don't Pull Your Love Out on Me, Baby" feel here,'" he says as an example. This chemistry, developed through innumerable hours of tweaking and then road-testing the songs, is apparent throughout You Ruined Everything. As Howie puts it, "We busted our asses."
The album also boasts a small but impressive guest list. The album's title track is one of several sparked by the pedal steel playing of N.C. great Clyde Mattocks, veteran of the Super Grit Cowboy Band and many a Johnny Paycheck tour and the teller of many a great tale. And the organ playing of Southern Culture on the Skids' Chris Bess (whose name you'll also find in the credits of Uncle Tupelo's Still Feel Gone) is the soulful backbone of "You've Grown Tired of Me."
At the end of the day, Howie would like folks to think of the Two Dollar Pistols as "a country band that likes R&B, that likes rock 'n' roll, that likes rockabilly, that likes The Beatles, but not a rock 'n' roll band that likes country music." John, you're preaching to the choir.