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Are Dixie Bee Liners "Ripe" for success?

By Ken Burke, April 2008

"It's a great little group of people," says Buddy Woodward of the Dixie Bee Liners. "Probably the best band I've ever been in." When one considers how many bands Woodward has been part of that have enjoyed fervent cult followings, that's saying something. However, after toiling away in various roots music aggregations for the better part of two decades, the eclectic singer-songwriter/voice actor is finally part of a band that has a shot at connecting with a larger audience. Stuffed with hybrid influences and cross-cultural sounds, the tuneful bluegrass combo featuring versatile Brandi Hart's soulful lead voice, just released their second album, "Ripe," and first for Pinecastle.

Although the Bee Liners exhibit a high degree of roots music skills, the band draws fire from some hard line traditionalists. "If you talk to people that are full on into straight, traditional, old time bluegrass music, they don't know what the hell we are," Woodward explains from his Virginia home. "It's not necessarily your daddy's bluegrass."

The band's leader points out that the group features great pickers that proudly echo the sounds of Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith. They also often incorporate a cornucopia of sounds distilled from pop, blues, folks and rock and roll. The puckish blend imbues their sound with a zingy pop culture relevance, which has finally resulted in steady bookings and a national recording contract, but truthfully, it is an approach Woodward has been refining his whole career.

"I grew up with AM radio during the 60s and early 70s," the California-born Woodward recalls. "So, I heard whatever was a hit, whether it was Sgt. Barry Sadler, Buck Owens, Flatt & Scruggs, The Beatles or whatever." Besides furnishing the young singer-songwriter with sonic inspiration that fertile era in American pop and country also strongly influenced his idea of what constituted good songwriting. "Of course you've got all these great songwriters like Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and they're all writing really fantastic songs and each song has a different mood."

Nowadays, Woodward is a much respected multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, mandolin, bass, banjo and a smattering of keyboards, autoharp and drums. However, the former rodeo rider initially set his sites on an acting career, which he claims to have abandoned around 1982. That said, he enjoys some fame as a voice-over artist for American versions of such animated Japanese fare as "Blood Shadow," "His and Her Circumstances," "Shootfighter Tekken" and yes even "Pokemon." The latter still garners a big response among a certain aged crowd. "One of the kids in 'Pan' (a theater production Woodward recently appeared in for a Virginia production) saw my bio squib in the program and asked me if I was ever in 'Pokemon,'" he chuckles. "In fact, yes I did an episode called 'The Cristal Onix,' which he'd seen. His eyes got all wide when I told him. That's me. Hero to geeky preteen shut-ins and fat guys with glasses who collect Anime."

Yet until now, Woodward's was known as lead singer for the Ghost Rockets. Formed in 1992, the New York-based alt.-country combo did zany bluegrass remakes of "Oh Canada," The Monkees' "What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round" and the Beach Boys' "In My Room." The band enjoyed a certain cache in twang and neo-country circles, but were never able to translate good reviews into sales and lucrative gigs. They quietly disbanded later in early 2000.

Woodward rebounded with the formation of Buddy Woodward and Nitro Express. "Basically it was the same format - an electric country-rock sort of thing with a little honky tonk. The problem was, we sort of ran out of places to play. New York City is not exactly the capitol of country music, and there was only one place left where we could play and actually get paid for it, and they hired a new booking agent who started clearing out what he called 'the old dead wood.' That would have included anybody who had played at that club over the last 10 years."

"So, I was looking to diversify. I'd always played bluegrass, of course. I'd gotten a job producing a CD by a band called the Chelsea Mountain Boys. One of the things that they did was a regular tribute show (The Chelsea Mountain Jamboree), where they'd have a house band and a whole bunch of guest singers. They hired me to be the band leader. So, we did a tribute to Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. At the Loretta Lynn tribute show, during the rehearsals, we needed a girl to come in and sing during the rehearsals because it just wasn't feasible to have all the guest singers come in to every rehearsal. So, the steel player brought Brandi (Hart) in, whom I'd never met before. I liked her voice and suggested that we get together off clock and sing."

The Kentucky-born Hart had come to New York with the intention of becoming a dancer, but when that dream didn't pan out, she drifted into music. Oddly, "she's been singing in Baptist church choirs since she was two years old," says Woodward, who reports that versatile singer-songwriter was involved with one-off side projects a la the all-girl bluegrass band Miss Brandy Hart & Her Cherry Tarts.

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