"I tend to get a little nervous when we're put in a situation where we're the only band doing the kind of thing that we do," Two Dollar Pistols' John Howie Jr. says.
Playing the recent Shakori Hills Grassroots festival in Chatahm County, the Pistols front man even told the crowd he felt the band was out of their element. He needn't have worried.
As the Pistols warmed up, so did the crowd, and by the second tune they had the huddled masses (it gets cold at midnight shows in the hills) jumping with a set that included The Clash's "Brand New Cadillac."
Howie says he was nervous having to follow Jim Lauderdale, backed by Donna the Buffalo, the festival's host band. "But once we got up there, the people who worked there treated us pretty well, and the audience seemed to really enjoy it."
In a similar situation the next weekend, the band ran into trouble at a college gig in South Carolina. "We were definitely out of place," Howie says. "Not because of the music, because we play on all kinds of bills." The South Carolina college students, he says, were probably a little self-conscious about being thought of as rednecks. "So we got up there and went to our first song, and we were really kicking out the jams," Howie recalls. "I thought we sounded great. We all looked at one another and said, Yeah!"
There was a smattering of applause, and then the problems started. "Someone yelled, 'you suck ass!' And another guy yelled, 'Dukes of Hazard!' So, it was a little hostile. But that's the worst ever, ever, ever."
Other than that, things have gone pretty good for the Pistols these days thanks to a good response to the band's last release.
"You Ruined Everything helped us a lot," says Howie of the Pistols' '02 release. "Almost a year to the date of our CD release party was when we played Opryland, and that would not have happened before that record came out. Every year, one more thing happens that has always been kind of a dream of ours. Opening for Merle Haggard, getting to play with Billy Joe Shaver, overseas with the Pistols and now Oprylands."
Although it hasn't been officially released yet, the band's new CD--Hands Up!--seems to be reaching people beyond the band's core audience. The album is about freedom, Howie says, and has a different approach than the last one.
You Ruined Everything, he says, was a statement that he felt the band needed to make--a record where he had written all the songs and there were no covers.
"It ended up being a warm, basic '60-'70s country feel, so with Hands Up! we had a lot more freedom to do whatever we wanted to do."
The new record ranges from Howie's take on country rock ("It Doesn't Matter Much To Me" and "Hands Up,") to more '70s sounding tunes like "Like You Did," to flat-out twangers like "Too Bad That You're Gone."
"We just felt a lot freer to kind of experiment, and I think that makes for a little bit of more kind of a fun record. At this point the pressure's off."
There have been some other changes since the last album. The band has a new rhythm section--bassist Mark O'Brien and drummer Matt Brown. Lead guitarist Scott McCall is still on board, and he and Howie worked together writing the record. "We've been really trying to present the image of the Pistols this time around as being more of a band," Howie says.
"We've got some new stuff, stylistically, that we're trying," says McCall, citing the opening cut, "Too Bad You're Gone" as an example. Howie had written the song after the deaths of his father and the band's first bassist, Ellen Gray. McCall and Howie worked on it, speeding it up a bit. "It might be one of the best love songs he's ever written," McCall believes. "It's just a really different flavor. It's not the typical honky-tonk theme of heartache. It's a different kind of vibe."
McCall adds other flavors as well, courtesy of influences that include Ry Cooder and Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton. McCall says he favors players who really play for the song. "In this group, I'm really into crafting lines and stacking and layering to create a little orchestra. I find that pretty effective."
Fans can look for more treats in the upcoming Pistols music. "John's songwriting is becoming a bit more open, and he's progressing all the time with his writing, picking up different flavors," McCall says. The band is starting to stray from traditional honky-tonk, which dictates a strict sequence of events. "We're looking for more--different influences coming in--leaving some openings for the rest of the band to make the contributions. The chemistry's really nice."
The Two Dollar Pistols CD release party for Hands Up! is at Cat's Cradle, Friday, May 21. Barn Burning and David Childers and the Modern Don Juans open. The show starts at 10 p.m. and tickets are $8.
Pistols in Opryland
Last August, John Howie Jr. realized a lifelong dream when the Two Dollar Pistols played Nashville's Opryland.
"It was one of the most pleasant experiences we've had as a band," Howie said proudly. "Just because they treated us so well, everyone there. It was how you would imagine in our dreams the Grand Ole Opry being, this sort of familial type of thing."
The Opry contacted Howie in late winter, telling him "we've got this Opryland plaza party thing that we're doing." The gig is set up on a stage not far from the steps of the Grand Ole Opry itself. The band plays two sets and then they start the Opry. "It was just a wonderful vibe," Howe remembers. "It made me feel great about what we were doing." Howie had thought that the band would be on a long hiatus before making Hands Up!, which ended up not happening. "I thought that maybe that would be us wrapping up at least one segment of our career and not knowing what was gonna happen, but that was so great--it kind of reinvigorated all of us.
Although the experience was great, seeing his heroes in the flesh was a bit unnerving. Porter Wagoner was his first sighting. Asked if he spoke to him, Howie says he was otherwise engaged. "He didn't speak to me because I was running away from him. Little Jimmy Dickens spoke to our driver because he was walking around." Howie says that the sight of all those legends walking around got him a little freaked-out.
"I'm always paranoid about meeting people who I've kinda built up as heroes in my mind, 'cause you don't want that to be shattered. And those are names I can remember hearing since I can remember hearing. I'm not exaggerating. It just seemed like a bit much to be walking around and sharing the toilet with 'em--I wasn't ready for that."
The singer says that perhaps, if it had been the band's third or fourth time, or even the second time, that would have been one thing, but the first time playing for Grand Ole Opry Incorporated was overwhelming. "They were about to hand me a check with my name on it with The Grand Ole Opry Group written on the top corner," Howie says. " That in itself was enough to have me kind of anxious. Hanging out with those guys wasn't really in the cards."
Despite Howie's reticence around the stars, The Pistols are ready to try Opryland again, though it looks like it might have to wait until next year. "We're talking to 'em about doing it," Howie says. "We're not sure yet because we've got a lot going on this summer, what with the record about to come out and we're playing an awful lot. So we're really hoping that we can figure out some way our schedules can meet. I really want to do it again. I'd do it a million times."