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Red Meat heads for the "Alameda County Line"

By Ken Burke, January 2001

Dave "Smelley" Kelley, gravelly-voiced singer for the San Francisco-based honky tonkers Red Meat, remembers the day he and the band met legendary songwriter Harlan Howard.

"Our radio promotions guy in Nashville said, 'I'll take you to lunch at this place. Harlan Howard's got a special seat at the bar. He usually comes in and smokes two cigarettes and has a draft beer for lunch. We'll just go and lurk.' So Jill ended up getting our picture taken with him. She asked, 'What advice would you give me?' He said, 'Try to write it better!'"

Writing it better is something the sextet comprised of Max Butler on pedal steel, mandolin and guitar, Les Jones on drums, Michael Montalto on guitar and keyboards, bassist and vocalist Jill Olson, singer/guitarist, chief songwriter Scott Young and Kelley have been doing since 1993.

The band just released their second disc, "Alameda County Line."

Together, they summon the disparate sounds of yesteryear, when country music was about dispelling heartache and workaday woes with a well-turned musical phrase and rich, danceable musicianship.

Kelley, the gregarious counterpoint to Young's shy genius, achieves droll understatement when he describes the band's origins as eclectic. Young played in a funk band before teaming with Kelley in the acappella group The Genuine Diamelles. Max Butler has been, in Kelley's words, "a traveling guitar slut since age 16" and has toured Europe with the Sextants. Olson and Montalto served up pop and folk with undercurrents of country in the Movie Stars.

Like Young and Kelley, Olson hails from Iowa, and she understands their midwestern attitudes. According to Kelley, "She also brings a femaleness to the group, which we desperately need -- in the bus, on the stage, in the dressing room, in the recording studio. You kind of need a female around to keep you from acting like a pig!"

About the band's name, "Scott came up with Red Meat and the Carnivorous Cowboys" explains Kelley. They were going to use the full-name until they realized that audiences would probably start asking which member was supposed to be 'Red.' The shortened version not only worked well for the newspapers, but according to the irreverent Kelley, the name alerted "all the granola-munchers around here just where we're coming from."

San Francisco has never exactly been a hotbed of country music activity, but according to Kelley, Red Meat's audience has managed to find them.

"There's a whole passel of lesbians from places like Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama who come out and just go off! They were afraid to go in some of the bars back home and make out with their girlfriend. Well, they can feel free to come down and cut a rug in front of the stage with us and make-out. About the most comment they're going to get out of me is, "There's two girls down here making me feel real happy up on stage.' So, they don't get any negative reinforcement from us; we're kind of accepting all different kinds of people. If they like what we're doing, we love them."

"Alameda County Line" is the second Red Meat disc produced by ex-Blaster Dave Alvin. Besides helming his own solo career as musician and poet, Alvin has produced Katy Moffatt, The Derailers, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys and Sonny Burgess.

So how did he come to produce this eclectic group?

"Jill (Olson) got a hold of my phone number and literally pestered me. I'm not exaggerating," chuckles Alvin. "She pestered me to do it - but in the sweetest, funniest kind of way. She'd call up and say, 'You know Dave, what I think would make you a better man would be to produce Red Meat!' That kind of thing. 'You've done a lot in your career, but you've never produced Red Meat!' So finally, Owen their manager sent me their first CD, and I listened to it, and I was really struck by Scott Young's songwriting. That's what attracted me to the band."

Alvin was particularly impressed by Young's ability to redraft a song on short notice, which he did in the studio with the lead-off track on "Alameda County Line," "That's What I'm Here For."

Yet his awe over Young's songwriting abilities on such humorous odes as "Under The Wrench," doesn't stop him from demanding that a good song be made better. At his insistence, Young rewrote "Lolita," long considered a minor classic from the band's first self-produced album, 1997's "Meet Red Meat."

"This is the type of song people wave their beer glasses to in clubs," explains Alvin, "But it ended just as it really got going. So, we added another chorus, a solo and another verse so they could really enjoy it more."

Working with Alvin means submitting to preproduction rehearsals, eight-hour days in the studio, and experimentation.

"On the first record, I produced 'Thirteen,' it was more like, 'OK, let's consolidate here and let's make it Bakersfield. Let's just tighten up the style.' For this record, it was 'Okay, we're still in Bakersfield, but...they had lots of neat ideas like bringing Michael the guitar player and Max the steel player and bringing in phase shifters. The Waylon records of the early '70's did a lot of that. I was really impressed by that. Because sometimes when you're working with roots oriented musicians, they can be very afraid of playing around in the studio."

Though he feels the group is doing well on it's own Ranchero label, Alvin would like to see Red Meat on Hightone, but "These days, Bruce Bromberg is only interested in groups that tour fulltime." While it's true the band is more in-demand than ever before, they must still hold on to day jobs as a security guard, secretary, traffic controller, record store manager, a guitar repairman, and day laborers in order to make ends meet.

The band will tour the California and Pacific Northwest in February.

Kelley is hopeful about the band's prospects and the new album. "As soon as the weather breaks and our van can get out there on the road, we're probably going to hit the rest of the United States. We got a real good reception in the South and in the Midwest last time, we hope to make it to the East Coast someday soon."