Al Huckabee and
the Huckabee Family Band: Country Music as Country Music Was

It is not easy to be an urban cowboy—sort of stuck in the city, yet yearning for the open prairie, or, maybe at least a simple, uncomplicated life in the midwest. We all, however, know that life isn’t that simple, so country music in the 21st century should also be reflective of that. Enter Al Huckabee, long time New York City punk rock fixture in many ways. The first being through his tirelessly touring—but, for now, seemingly defunct—punk band, Crimson Sweet fronted by the inimitable, Polly Watson.

Secondly, he’s known for his critically lauded current rock and roll group, 1-800-Band, an exercise more in power-pop than punk. Both groups—even the restless and ragged, bare-knuckled punk scream of the Sweet—lean on melody and listenability. Pull up a chair and let’s explore how Al Huckabee and the Huckabee Family Band alters Al’s persona and explores the country side of life, even if it is by way of Brooklyn.

You’re known for your work with both Crimson Sweet and 1-800-BAND, why the current interest in country? Are you a musical chameleon? Should we expect a smooth jazz project soon?

Ha ha! I don’t know anything about jazz so no, let us all hold hands and pray that I do not ever make a smooth jazz record because, it would be so very, very bad.

​Before I was in the bands you mentioned when I was​ a kid in Ohio, I was in Ugly Stick which the critics called​ “​cow punk”—we made this twangy,​ scrappy,​ midwestern punk music​ and those were my formative years so that twangy ​stuff​ is really ingrained in me. I was never much of a fan of radio country music, as you can hear​. I come at it​​ from the classic country side. I’m inspired by George J​ones​, ​Johnny​ Paycheck, Johnny Cash, ​that​ kind of thing.​

​Also, in the small town where I grew up there was just one theater and my interest in electricity kept me hanging around backs​t​age​ trying to learn how to run the lights and the curtains and all that stuff. I learned how it all worked and then ​for​ a couple of summers—I was maybe 13 ​and​ 14—I was the only person in town who could run that antiquated system so when promoters would rent the theater they would​ call me​ to​ run the lights. It was so cool, all the​se ​country stars would​ come through town​​;​ Jim Ed Brown, Tom​ T. Hall, one of ​t​he ​Mandrel​l​ ​Sisters, ​these acts​ would always arrive in a beat up ​Silver Eagle tour bus​ and I​ loved being a very minor part of the show. It kind of hooked me on touring.

So I don’t think of myself as a musical chameleon at all but I can see how it would look like that.

That’s an interesting pedigree, Al. Can you talk a little bit about the role of alcohol on this album. Liquor features prominently in many of the songs. What is it about the connection between alcohol and country music?

Alcohol is such an interesting topic. You know in every human culture ever studied or discovered all over the world there are two traits that they all share: an incest taboo and some culturally acceptable way of changing one’s consciousness. It’s not always a drug (like our beloved ethanol) it may be trance or mediation or what have you but here in the modern USA we have corn whiskey and while we didn’t invent beer we certainly invented “Miller Time” so it’s no surprise that drinking is a trope in country music.

I think to look at drinking is to look at American culture. Drinking is this strange ritual thing that represents celebration, exuberance, euphoria but there is this really fine line between that and self-destruction, isolation, avoidance, dependency—the ugly side of drinking. Country music has always been about drinking, cheating and heartbreak. It’s about human failings, thinking you’re on top when you’re not. I just can’t resist a story like that—the often stupid or selfish mistakes we make and then having to live with the consequences. It can be as simple as drinking too much and suffering a headache the next day or as complex as telling lies and breaking trust to get what you want. I think drinking represents the American idea that we can have it all. And the sobering (pun intended) hard lessons that come from that.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film On the Bowery (1956) but its a sort of neorealist film of life on Skid Row in post war New York City. It’s really gritty and while it is scripted, it’s acted by actual bowery residents and shows up close the ravages of lives wasted in poverty and alcoholism. When we were making this record and tracking the song “I Like to Have a Good Time,” Alec Morton (bass) suggested that the video for the song should be footage from On the Bowery which was really funny but it perfectly captured what I was going for in that song. Who doesn’t want to have a good time, right? But by the end of the song you’re sort of left to wonder ‘at what cost?’ That was my goal, anyway.

If someone told you that they didn’t like country music, what would you put on the turntable to broaden their horizons? Can you talk a little about your country influences? I’d imagine with your experience in underground music, you might have some unexpected country influences, but please share all of your influences, even if they are big-ticket names.

I would put George Jones “Grand Tour” on. That song has it all. Frank Sinatra famously said George Jones had the second best voice in the world (the first being, in Frank’s humble opinion, his own of course). The record is from the mid ’70s so the production is analog and huge and warm, tons of plate reverb etc, but the real thing is the story, it’s a gripping and beautifully and concisely told. It’s all heartbreak and intrigue.

Another George Jones song that is essentially perfect is “He Stopped Loving Her Today”

I think if you played those two, maybe Dwight Yoakam doing “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry,” Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” and if that doesn’t do it Johnny Paycheck’s “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill” will make a convert out of them.

My influences are all the early simple stuff (Yoakam is later of course but he’s mining the classic Bakersfield sound is a super talented student of the classics). There is something clear and clean about those types of songs that really speaks to me.

Here we on blathering about country music, but your record really goes a little further. I don’t want readers to think it’s a regular ol’ honky tonk. In fact, a few of the tracks—specifically “Barstool” and “I’m Free”—have a countryish ballad quality that isn’t really traditional country. In fact, it reminds me of someone newer, like Dawes. Or, some early ’70s rock influenced by county, but not exactly country—Jackson Browne or maybe The Band. Can you talk about those tracks a little?

I almost didn’t put “I’m Free” on this record because it does have the qualities you describe but when I was rehearsing the band they were all such killer musicians they could just sort of own any songs I threw at them. So I decided to give it “I’m Free” a try at the last minute and it really fell together well. It’s a weird song, it has this liberation vibe but it can be interpreted as pretty dark as well. I wrote it one night when I was thinking about a friend of mine who was in a tough situation and I just wanted her to be free of all of the life problems that were weighing her down. It actually has nothing to do with suicide but every single person who’s ever heard the song seems to interpret it that way.

“Barstool” is my take on the classic country ballad, we called them “country weepers” when I was growing up. The idea of the lonely loser is a really rich concept, it kind of touches on our worst fears. But yeah it is non-traditional in that it doesn’t have any guitars—I was hoping to make a song that sort of just hangs there in space, like a feeling or a dream.

I’m really glad you bring up Jackson Browne, he was a part of what they called the “avocado mafia” ​in southern California in the late ’70s. There was a lot of overlap with Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, Poco, Burrito Brothers, the Eagles, etc. That music has legs man! The songwriting is so tight, so bulletproof that you still hear it on the radio today. And the Band is another great example of guys that lean really heavily on the country/folk/traditional whatever you want to call it but they make it their own, they make it pop music.

Are you planning any shows or tours with this group, or with this batch of songs?

Yes, we plan on doing some NYC shows in 2015. Schedules are being hammered out as we speak but it’s a bit a of juggling act since these musicians are so talented they all have lots of commitments such as:

Steve McGuirl is the drummer for Prince Rupert’s Drops as well as 1-800-BAND. Alec Morton (most famous for his amazing bass playing in Raging Slab) guests with a lot of acts and consistently tears it up with The Liza Colby Sound. Hans Chew played piano on this record but he’s usually playing piano in his own act the Hans Chew Band. Dave Cavallo is in that same band and he’s the guy who plays all that killer telecaster stuff on this record. Mark Orleans is the pedal steel player, he’s played with Sunburned Hand of the Man and numerous other acts

So it’s a challenge to get these guys together but we’re going to do it.

​Do you have any comment on the current state of country music?

I take a rather dim view of the current state of country music.

I try to listen to the country station but man, it’s hard to listen to. I used to think modern country was so weak because it lacked subtext or depth but then when I made a closer study of it I realized it’s so weak because much of it lacks any kind of narrative at all!

I find the country airwaves cluttered with lyrics that just seem to list all things “country.” Lots of mentions of trucks, beer, dirt roads, etc. There is usually a very pretty blond, blue-eyed girl in the front seat wearing cut off jeans but there is often no story at all—it feels like a checklist or a chant or some kind of litany. Clearly, these artists are doing something right in that lots of people like it and buy it and listen to it, but most of it leaves me cold. Listening to modern country feels like attending a party full of boring people.

There are exceptions of course, every once in a while you’ll get a song like “Redneck Woman” by Gretchen Wilson or “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” by Joe Nichols which are funny, catchy, and entertaining and pack a lot of personality. They keep hope alive in an otherwise bland landscape.

Al Huckabee & The Huckabee Family Band’s I Think You May Enjoy This… is in stores now.

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  • AHT

    Loved this interview! And so glad “I’m Free” was included o the album because it is my favorite song on there! (Also let me be the first person to say I did NOT think it was about suicide!) We play this album all the time, and, interestingly, lately it has felt like “the album to play” at parties for us!

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