"We were playing at the Circle Bar in early January, and the bartender came up and told me that Hunter S. Thompson was in the audience and that I should dedicate a song to him," explains Michael Hurtt, singer and rhythm guitarist for the aptly named Michael Hurtt And His Haunted Hearts. "I assumed he didn’t want anyone to know who he was, but apparently he was introducing himself to everyone. So I said, ‘From a bunch of broke writers and artists to someone who has actually done something with his life, this one’s for you, baby!’ And then we played something salacious and dirty-some screwed up but catchy double entendre." Thompson was clad in matching red Western-style shirt and pants that night, appropriate dress for the show, according to the rock ‘n’ roll hillbilly band’s front man (and OffBeat contributor), currently cast as an extra in an Elvis movie.
"He was in town, writing something for Playboy about All The Kings Men," says Hurtt. ‘He said, ‘West Coast hillbilly music, that’s my thing!’ I had made these hand-drawn fliers for our Christmas show that had snowflakes on them. We ripped one down, and wrote our information on it. He said he could get Sean Penn to cast us in the movie, but we had already auditioned for it… Well, we went out of town for a few days, and when I got back there was a message on my machine from one of the girls he was with. She said, quote, ‘He’s prone to outbursts. There’s something about that flier and that lettering…’ The flier had become a kind of talisman that had a calming effect on him, enough to get him to focus and to write." As reported by Hurtt, Thompson had lost the flier (supposedly while engaging in illicit activities with Jude Law and Sean Penn), was tearing apart his hotel room looking for it and needed another one to finish the article. "It was surreal, but somehow it made perfect sense. I was honored that he loved something I hand drew in 20 minutes at my kitchen table, not to mention the music.
"I’ve been wanting to put together a band that played traditional, rockin’ hillbilly music-that window of time right before rock ‘n’ roll that doesn’t really have a name-for a long time now. I’ve been writing songs in that vein, but I just couldn’t find anyone who could play the music right. For any kind of rock ‘n’ roll, one of the most important things is to approach it from a punk rock standpoint. I don’t mean mixing genres, so much, but as harnessing that attitude and rawness into the music. A lot of people don’t understand that.’ Finding people who were enthusiastic and "got it" proved to be difficult, until Hurtt happened to meet Haunted Hearts steel/electric guitarist and banjo player Mitch Palmer while DJ’ing at the Saint’s Sunday night DJ night.
"We decided to do something together after we saw each other play at Liuzza’s Thursday night bluegrass night. We were the only two guys there actually playing anything country, so we just kept saying we gotta do something. [Guitarist] J.D. Mark, who now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and I have been friends for years. He’s really open-minded, musically, and he has wanted to do a band like this for years. He used to drive down from Oxford to record with me. [Bassist] John Trahey was the catalyst that got this thing together. He was a great motivator. It’s always important to get people to show up. He shows up early."
For Hurtt, who is something of a musical anthropologist, finding people capable of getting the details right, without falling into the trappings of retroism, was important. In addition to original numbers, the Haunted Hearts also draw from a vast well of obscure nuggets of Americana that audiences otherwise wouldn’t get to hear. "I always find regionalism in music really fascinating. One of the big goals with me was to revisit the New Orleans country scene of the ’40s and ’50s-stuff like Red LeBlanc and Jody Levens, who originally did ‘Mardi Gras Mambo.’ People don’t even know that it even existed ; you don’t see any remnants of it here. There were record labels like Meladee that had great hillbilly stuff. WWL was a powerful country station at that time. That’s all completely disappeared." With that obsessive fascination comes a bevy of numbers from the place most people would least expect to find country music, Hurtt’s hometown, Detroit. "Detroit had some of the most amazing country stuff. On any given night, I’d say half our set consists of stuff from Detroit, from the likes of Skeets McDonald, Danny Richards, Eddie Jackson and others."
"Throughout my music career, I’ve always felt that what you don’t do is more important than what you do do," says Hurtt. "The biggest key is to know your limitations and to work within them. Push them a bit, but don’t try to be something you’re not. I’ve always liked Western swing, pop music, Tin Pan Alley stuff and rock ‘n’ roll-there’s a large wellspring to draw from, with hillbilly music. I hear these old records, and they’re just this four or five piece band with some guy wailing away singing and beating on his guitar. It’s more about feeling, and that to me is what rocks.’
"Of course it sucks that Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide," explains Hurtt as an addendum to the interview. "But the day after we met Hunter S. Thompson, we were playing in Memphis. Jim Dandy, the lead singer of Black Oak Arkansas was up front, going nuts in leather chaps. Hopefully we’ll continue to draw a diverse audience."
Not down with nü-metal or the typical New Orleans fare? Independent minded music aficionados-the kind who don’t wear fanny packs to concerts-have but one station to turn to in town to hear the latest sounds and dour, socially awkward DJs, WTUL. Tulane’s campus radio station is holding their 35th annual pledge drive, "Rock on Survival." The drive will host several events around town, notably a Quintron vs. DJ Pasta DJ battle on March 4 at Poly Joe’s, Permagrin and Triple Delight March 9 at TwiRoPa and the Songs From The Basement: Vol. 3 WTUL benefit compilation release party featuring Pocketfoxx, Big Blue Marble and DJ Real. Support this musical resource and help train future members of the radio industry by becoming a WTUL member for $25 per year.
IF THAT AIN’T COUNTRY
Eight-time Best Of The Beat winner for Best Country Artist Kim Carson returns to town from Texas on March 5 for the local debut of her new band at the Rivershack Tavern on River Road. Rumor has it that the band, Buffalo Speedway, is departure from the Casualties with a more high-energy honky-tonkyrockabilly feel to it with Carson sharing songwriting and lead vocal credits with Texas native Adam Burchfield. Look for them at Jazz Fest on Friday, April 29.
LOUISIANA BANDS AT SXSW
Every year, hundreds of Louisiana bands apply to SXSW in the hopes of being chosen to play for a veritable menagerie of music industry honchos. The Louisiana bands that made the cut are:
Dash Rip Rock
Drums & Tuba
Jimmy Elledge Band featuring Billy Joe Royal
Andi Hoffman & B-Goes
Jeff & Vida
Los Hombres Calientes
Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers
Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys
Telefon Tel Aviv
World Leader Pretend