Bright Lights, Big Country

The Weary Boys play well in the city of dreams

Every year, scads of bands formed in America's less-than-cosmopolitan nooks and crannies pull up stakes and head out for the big city. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville. (Shit, some groups even purposely relocate here, for some reason or other.) They're sure they've got the talent to take things to the next level, confident that if they can just get to a major market, they'll make it.

Most of them never do, however, due to the simple reality of the numbers. The best band in Minot, N.D., is only the newest unknown band in L.A., an unproven outfit that can't yet get a gig at the sort of clubs industry types frequent. They're competing not only with native talent, but also with the hundreds of groups just like them, fresh out of some smaller town. They're hungry and confident, but chances are they won't be either before too long.

So how, then, did a handful of country music fans from Humboldt County, Calif., go from busking collegiate-hippie markets outside Austin's University of Texas (and living in a Ramada Inn by the freeway) to critical acclaim and a Tuesday-night residency at the city's legendary Continental Club in about a year?

It's like the street musician told the tourist when he asked how to get to Carnegie Hall — practice, man.

"We had the basic components of what we do now, but moving to Austin … the second night in town, we went to the Continental and saw a guy named Roger Wallace," says Weary Boys singer/guitarist Darren Hoff, "and we just looked at each other and said, 'We have to start practicing really hard.' We felt like someone had to die for us to get a gig, just because of the caliber of musicianship [in town]."

Of course, it didn't hurt either that The Weary Boys' amalgam of high-octane bluegrass and traditional country offered Austin's notoriously ravenous roots-rock aficionados something both familiar and fresh. By combining the acoustic instrumentation and sonic milieu of Appalachia with sinewy, electric Telecaster lines, with raw, boozy energy and an engaging sort of hipster-redneck chic, the quintet created a signature with across-the-board appeal.

"We were embraced pretty quickly, very surprisingly. Within less than a year, we were selling out clubs, nothing big or anything, but we could pack 'em out," Hoff remembers. "Just barely after we moved, we were playing a weekly at the Continental. Two weeks into the stretch, some writer wrote up that it was the cool thing to go to, and it's been full since."

Hoff, singer/guitarist Mario Matteoli and fiddler Brian Salvi all grew up in Northern California (so did comparatively new drummer Cary Ozanian), playing in the usual young bands, sometimes together. While Hoff came of age rocking to the usual adolescent-male fare — "my first favorite record was Motley Crue's Shout At The Devil," he laughingly relates — his father owned two country radio stations, and Humboldt County's demography ensured that there was constant exposure to Americana styles.

"The only big acts that come to town are country music, Nashville stars," he says. "Also, you have the Grateful Dead influence, and through that [jam scene] there's a lot of bluegrass players."

Most of his early bands were rock acts; it was a chance phone call from a friend that set Hoff down the road that led to The Weary Boys and Austin.

"When I was 18, somebody asked if I could play guitar — he wanted to start a country band. I never thought you could actually just start a country band," he laughs. "I learned a Hank Williams tune and never went back."

Eventually, Hoff, Matteoli and Salvi decided to try and crack a bigger market, casting about and settling on Austin, where they picked up bassist/"token Texan" Darren Sluyter. The Weary Boys quickly became a city favorite and began some ever-expanding roadwork.

"That was the immediate intention — as soon as we had two songs we wanted to go on tour. But we found out we needed a record to go on tour," Hoff jokes, "so we did that first and then went on tour."

The group's look, punky approach and penchant for splitting their sets between originals and re-imagined old-school traditionals found fans where the burgeoning jam-grass scene hadn't — namely, with everyone from indie kids to diehard roots-music fans with patience for neither noodling nor patchouli. And the crowds have grown over the course of several discs, the latest of which, Good Times, expands on The Weary Boys' core sound to infectious effect.

"In Austin, we draw a really broad base, from 19-year-old kids with fake IDs to 60-year-old men hitting on these 19-year-old girls. It really has to do with the kind of club we're playing, or where we are," says Hoff. "In Omaha, Nebraska, they just sit and watch and clap, and in Lafayette, Louisiana, they're dancing up a storm and throwing back shots as fast as they can order 'em."

When asked why he thinks such large and disparate groups of music fans continue to embrace seminal Americana styles — O Brother being a distant memory in pop-culture years, and all — Hoff is equivocal:

"I don't have anything too profound to say about it, but most music these days is so phony. For the most part, everyone grew up with a grandpa who listened to Buck Owens in his truck. And when people hear it now, as adults, it strikes a chord with 'em."

While they might still be one of Austin's most talked-about acts, their adopted hometown isn't going to see too much of The Weary Boys in the foreseeable future. The band's touring schedule is packed for the next few months, and they'll continue to play anywhere, for anyone who wants to hear 'em and buy 'em a beer, with anyone.

Even jam bands.

"We're not too worried about [being labeled a newgrass band]. If they like us that's great, but it's not our scene," says Hoff. "If they want to hear two-minute punk-rock bluegrass songs and four-part harmony ballads, if they're into it, shit, I'll take their money."

Contact Music Critic Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or [email protected].

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