Praise be to hillbilly heaven, the spirit of Hank Williams is alive and well. Alberta’s Ol’ Boots & the Hoots have resurrected the broken vocal formula that was perfected by Southern storytellers years ago and has since inspired so many amnesiac stadium-country singers. The 11-track Pinecone Cowboy features a poised collection of wittily crafted, downtempo western melodies, a cactus in the ass of modern, power-ballad country crooners that forgot the music of their grandfathers.
Pinecone Cowboy is a piece of timeless rural poetry. The juxtaposition between lyrics and music, so indicative of good country songwriting, is present in bittersweet songs “No Good Woman” and “Big City Waltz,” which often balance tongue and cheek aphorisms, growth and anxiety with therapeutic hollering. VandenBrink’s walking percussive bass, measuring footsteps and rustic floorboard toe-taps reinforce themes of rambling and roaming, coming and going.
Ol’ Boots Graham’s vocals break and recover like a standard transmission engine, articulating lonesome blues and recovery in terms of fist fights and drinking. Shades of whiskey brown and meadow green colour the unperturbed rhythm of the album, which seems uninterested in changing the pastoral landscape that has inspired their comfortable groove. The unchanging trio of double bass, guitar and banjo echoes the endurance of Conway and Cash, showcasing a simple Sun Records sound with ageless charm.
The wit and candour of Graham’s jottings and delivery on tracks like “Cleo the Cat” and “Worse Days” are examples of potentially dull subjects turned fascinating by years of honing good song writing. The lack of tonal variety is acceptable given the cohesion of the band and the mutual understanding of the intended result. The enthusiastic confidence of Pinecone Cowboy is its most endearing quality, and in spite of era and location, the twang and drawl do not feel contrived. This well-assembled offering is at times static, yet also possesses an exciting potential that remains untapped but alludes to future bluegrass ascendency. (Independent)
ONCE PUNK, NOW PINECONE COWBOYS
Published: Nov 6, 2014
Written by: B. Simm via Beatroute
CALGARY — Ol’ Boots and the Hoots is made up of Tyler Allen on banjo, Telecaster (lead guitar) and callbacks, with Sean V on the upright bass and vocal harmonies and Boots Graham singing, yodelin’, songwriting along with acoustic guitar duties. Born to hootenanny they play swingin’ old-time country and have a real zinger of record called Pinecone Cowboy. Boots Graham fills in a few questions about the band.
BeatRoute: Where did you grow up?
Boots Graham: I wouldn’t go as far as to say we “grew up” but Tyler spent his childhood in Olds, and Sean in Bentley. Most of my time was spent in Lacombe. We all currently hang our hats in Red Deer.
BR: What’s the band’s background, previous musical experience? How did Ol’ Boots come into existence?
BG: Before Boots & The Hoots I was in a punk rock band for years, before deciding to pursue country music on my own. After a couple years of touring solo I was opening for a local bluegrass band that Sean and Tyler were members of and soon hit it off with them. They joined me just over a year and a half ago for a few gigs and to record our demo and things have just progressed from there.
BR: What are some of your main musical and not so obvious influences?
BG: We all have similar taste as far as music goes whether that be Roger Miller, Hank Williams and Buck Owens or the punk rock we all grew up on. Bands like Nofx, Rancid and the original punk rocker Woody Guthrie.
BR: Pinecone Cowboy sounds terrific!! Where, how was it recorded?
BG: Pinecone Cowboy was originally intended only as a demo for booking and to find a place to record those songs but it had such a great response we just ran with it. We recorded it with our pal Lawrence LaGrange, live off the floor here in Red Deer. In a couple months we are going to record the follow up at Riverdale Recording in Edmonton with Kurt Ciesla (Corb Lund & the Hurtin’ Albertans) producing.
BR: Exclaim! gave it a great review. Did you tour with the record when it came out?
BG: We have done some touring through BC and Saskatchewan, but we are still tryin’ to play every small town dive bar in Alberta.
BR: What do you do there outside of playing music?
BG: Sean is a mighty outdoorsman and Tyler an admirable luthier. I spend most of my days staring at my BSA motorcycle.
BR: Why Boots and why do you write this kind of music?!
BG: Boots is a nickname I picked up along the way ‘cause some drinkin’ buddies couldn’t remember my name. I write country music ‘cause I believe in country music and I think a lot of folks, young and old, do too. It’s good honest music for everyone. I write my music with the sole purpose of making strangers laugh and, if I am lucky, dance too.
ALL HAT AND PLENTY CATTLE
Maybe the idiom, all hats and no cattle, comes from Texas. Some might have heard it uttered from the lips of J.R. Ewing, a fictional character in the TV series Dallas that appeared first in the late 1970s but who seems to have manifested himself into the realities of current day American politics.
As an “oil worker” myself (full disclosure: I worked for Shell for 17 years), but hailing from way out east (Yorkshire, England), I was always amused when the expression was brought up in meetings to describe someone who is more talk than action. Full of hype. Or, as Mark “Boots” Graham, delicately put it: “Two days ago I was covered in chicken shit. Look at me now, I’m just full of it!”
Big voice, funny stories
Boots is the right foot in the threesome country band, Boots & The Hoots. He’s big on voice, funny with his stories, appreciates old-style country and wears a beige cowboy hat (a Smithbilt?) But here’s the key: Boots, and his Hoots, have plentycattle. No hype as we tend to use that word these days, just raucous, embroidered stories, spoken or sung, that hit the spot with a packed out crowd at The Gateway, SAIT in Calgary on Saturday. Not a band to wait through, get through, drink through until the main act comes on stage. (That was The Dead South: read hereabout their ebullient stage show). Both were performing as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival Fall Concert Series.
Like a Working Men’s Club
Boots & The Hoots performed like they might have been in a Working Men’s Club. Very different to a Gentlemen’s Club, these down to earth venues in the north of England (and in industrial parts of Scotland, Wales, and the Midlands) offered cut-price beer to the likes of miners and metal-workers and promoted show bands. Good music, funny stories; and engagement with the audience, not just a distraction in between the other entertainment (bingo) and the stylish food (pies and peas).
Red Deer Boys
The funny stuff connecting Boots & The Hoots to their audience started up as soon as the Red Deer boys got on stage: “We’re here to play some Norwegian Black Metal” alerted Boots, and launched into a real country number, featuring a terrific, twangy Strat guitar solo from Tyler Allen. Sean Vandenbrink, a smiling, big fellow with “crude” and a cup and saucer inked into his left hand, laid down a solid rhythm on his upright bass.
Boots, his nickname emblazoned on the body and strap of his guitar, did the singing. And talking, lots of it, especially about the state of country music as he sees it. He explained how the band has a rule to always play at least one Hank Williams song in their set. On the other hand, he seems to have a disliking for the music of the “King of Country”, George Strait (“anything on the radio over the last twenty years played (by him) sucks”.
Songs of love gone wrong and life on the road
The band went into a medley of songs about love gone wrong “If that’s not country, then kiss my ass”, Boots offered. One of these, Lower the Bar, was written about “one of my ex-wife’s who ran up a big tab at the bar when I left her.” The hardship of life on the road was featured in Hobo Shower, which reminded me, for all the wrong reasons mind, of The Blackfoot Truckstop Diner, an authentic place in Inglewood, Calgary with roots going back to the late 1950s. It’s highly recommended for a visit; try a milkshake and poutine together!
Drinking and its after-effects was another strong theme in their songs (“I’d like to dedicate this next song to anyone who ever had a hangover”) including their last one, Whisk all the Drinky. Boots & The Hoots went down really well and some good after-effects are still buzzing around.
More action from the gig
Boots & The Hoots released a nine-song CD, Too Hot to Hoot in 2015. Pinecone Cowboy their first recording, was released in 2013.
A video featuring some of their live performance at The Gateway, SAIT (shot by Ryan Simchuk)
You can hear Boots & The Hoots (from 2014) on CKUA radio
COLD CALLS, HOT AND COOLER COUNTRY MUSIC
Mark “Boots” Graham, guitarist and lead singer of Boots and the Hoots, is a master of the cold call, usually to honky-tonk dive bars so remote they don’t have a website or an e-mail address. It’s helped meet the goal set out in 2014 — to play every dive bar in Alberta. And while he states the band hasn’t brought their droll, old time country sound to quite every bar, they have toured from Yellowknife to Waterton, through most of Saskatchewan and even figured out the trick for breaking through in B.C.
“It’s basically where we make our bread and butter is playing the hotel bars in the small towns. B.C. doesn’t really have dive bars,” Graham, originally from Clive, Alberta, explains in a phone call from his Red Deer home.” It’s a little bit classier — it’s all gourmet and high-falutin’. About four years ago we’d call B.C., call every bar and pretty much as soon as we said were a country band they’d hang up or lose interest. We said, ‘What’s going on? They’re really scared of country music?’ So we started calling and saying we were a bluegrass band and they all booked us. You just had to change your angle.”
Rounded out by Olds-raised Tyler Allen on guitar and banjo and Sean VandenBrink, formerly of Bentley, Alberta, on upright bass, the band members come by their vintage twang and strum naturally. But rural roots aside, Graham started playing live at 14 in punk bands for about five years before the group formed around 2013. He credits growing up in a musical family where there was always an upright piano and acoustic guitars around for his start.
The jump from punk to the classic country sound — which a national paper nailed down as “a cactus in the ass of modern, power-ballad country crooners” — was due in part to touring with his punk band, Scrap.
“A lot of it had to do with the modern country. I was on tour with Scrap in 2009 and you get bored of the few CDs that you have. This was before MP3 players were really popular. You tune into the radio, and the country music on the radio is just garbage. I told (my bandmates), ‘There’s good stuff out there, but its 46 years old and done by the grandfathers of country music.’
“Being a bunch of punk rockers they didn’t believe me, so I ended up buying a bunch of CDs on that tour — Hank Williams and Merle Haggard — and by the end of it we all were heavily into country music. It’s very similar to punk rock: it’s really blue collar and anyone can play it.”
Ironically, the cactus in the ass review was out for months before the band realized their first album, 2013’s Pinecone Cowboy (a play on Rhinestone Cowboy), had earned ink.
“That was huge for us. We didn’t find the review until three months later. We didn’t realize they’d answered our letter. We’d sent them the CD in the mail and we didn’t realize they’d opened it and listened to it, let alone reviewed it. Everything they said in that review wrote our bio for us and helped us get on our way,” Graham says.
While the band was unaware this had happened, they noticed their bookings started to pick up. Around the same time, they were featured on a CKUA special playing live, which also helped. Graham found the review Googling the band’s name. “In the same month they’d reviewed Dolly Parton’s and Merle Haggard’s latest albums and they didn’t get four stars and we did. I thought, ‘It’s a pretty nice pat on the back to beat your heroes.’ ”
The band went on to release Too Hot to Hoot in 2015 and have a Kickstarter fund on their Facebook page to raise money to put out their third album.
Playing 200 nights a year in addition to festivals during the summer, Graham’s learned to field the inevitable family reunion questions about his future, and the family members have learned to quit asking. “Hopefully, we’ll be on the road the next 50 or 60 years,” Graham says without a trace of irony.
He adds that unlike many artists, the road doesn’t get in the way of his songwriting, which relies on wit without kitsch. “I can’t stop. It’s like a faucet that was turned on years ago and I just can’t turn it off. When we went in to record our third album, I had the fourth one written in my head already.”
What about the joys of loading equipment at 2 a.m. in a blizzard and staying in shitty bars? Graham’s stoic: “That part of it — I’ve read every book of all my heroes (including autobiographies by Stompin’ Tom Connors, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard) — and that’s just a part of it. You learn to kind of love those shitty hotels and you get pretty good at the load in and the load out. Honestly, the hardest part of the job is cold calling bars three provinces away and trying to convince them to let you play in their bar where they never heard of you.”