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Has Big Sandy recorded "Radio Favorites?

By Jeffrey B. Remz, May 1999

A funny thing happened to Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys on the way to recording a new release.

The sextet was supposed to record three new songs and pull three more already recorded songs for an EP.

But once Big Sandy, aka Robert Williams, and the boys (bassist Wally Hersom, drummer Bobby Trimble, pianist Carl Sonny Leyland, guitarist Ashley Kingman and steel player Lee Jeffriess) got into the studio, all hell broke loose.

The result is "Radio Favorites," six songs of all new material of their brand of country. western swing and jazz.

"We were trying to figure out with HighTone Records what our next move was going to be," says Big Sandy, on the phone from a diner in Pittsburgh. "We were trying to land some sort of deal on a bigger label, but we didn't want to wait around for that to happen until we put out something new. We thought we'd put out an EP."

(The band had been talking with Sire, but ultimately the talks did not lead to a deal.) "We were under pressure to get out a new album. Some people can write on the road. I have a hard time with it. Other things get in the way. I do come up with ideas. At the end of that year, we had finished touring, and we had promised HighTone we'd have an album for them by a certain date."

"We felt good the way things were coming out on the first day of the studio. We thought we'd keep rolling along that night. I rented a hotel room that night and came up with three more songs."

"I don't like doing it that way, but it always ends up that way," he says of writing "First and Last Blues," "Playgirl" and "What a Dream It's Been" in one night.

While the EP continues in the same vein as previous efforts, this is not a portrait of a band running to stand still.

"I think it's following the same lines. There are more ingredient in the mix now. We are letting our guard down and playing what we feel like. For awhile, we were limiting ourselves in trying to work within specific genres, especially earlier in the band doing the straight rockabilly thing and letting a bit of western swing, country and R&B creep into the music. "

"We're having more fun with it," he says.

One reason is Leyland, a Brit, who honed his skills in New Orleans.

"Carl has been bringing a lot to it," Big Sandy says. "He's quite ahead of us musically. We're learning from him in how to put a song together: solid, boogie woogie type material, some of the jazzier things we've been doing from to time. Carl's a big part of that.

On "It's a Mystery to Me," Big Sandy says, "There's "a certain thing I do in there vocally - kind of a weird scale - I was listening to some early Jose Feliciano stuff."

"Playgirl,"with many musical twists and turns from New Orleans piano to swing, is about a female exotic dancer. "It's not really a serious thing," Big Sandy says. For some reason he says, a number of strippers have come up to him after shows.

"The music kind of shifted. In my head, it was more of a (Texas country blues guitarist) Frankie Simms kind of thing, and it ended up being more Cajun or Zydeco feel, somewhere in between there."

That's a far cry from Big Sandy's start. He was a die-hard rockabilly fan as a teen growing up in LA and Anaheim, where he still lives.

"When we were younger we were pretty hard core into that. We were pretty much locked into it a real mindset that this music was it, and nothing else matters." Big Sandy, 34, got the rockabilly fever from his father. "I was lucky enough to grow up with tons of records in the house. My father's records were country, rockabilly and early '50's rock and roll. My mother had all the doo-wop, R&B records."

"Although it was music from an earlier (era), I just spent hours listening to them. That's what I was into. My father and I used to row up and hit all the thrift stores. It was the bond we had."

As a teen, Sandy says he was in "awe of all these bands. I'd see The Blasters and say that's what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how to do anything. When I took those first few guitar lessons and listened along, that's how I learned it."

"We had all been in different rockabilly bands in the early '80's and throughout the decade," he says.

Several friends were in a psychobilly band, The Gravediggers. Among them was Hersom.

"We wanted to something that was a lot more traditional than the other bands we were coming across," Sandy says.

Trimble was a roadie "hanging around at our practices and getting in the way. Our first drummer just didn't show up for a gig, and from that point, Bobby was the drummer."

They hooked up with Kingman, Jeffriess and Leyland on trips to England.

Big Sandy et al inked with HighTone and put out "Jumpin' From Six to Six" in 1994, followed by "Swingin' West" the following year and "Feelin' Kinda Lucky" in 1997.

The debut was more of a Fifties styled often rockabilly-oriented affair. They incorporated more swing and jazz with Merle Travis guitar leanings into subsequent albums.

Never one to take it easy apparently, the Big Sandy and Fly-Rite Boys configuration put out two albums in 1998. Big Sandy recorded "Dedicated to You" without the Boys, delving into doo-wop, blues and oldies.

"Music that meant so much to me as a kid," Williams says was the focus. "A style of music that I haven't really been able to explore myself. It was a project that was close to my heart."

The Fly-Rite Boys were not far behind with their disc "Big Sandy Presents The Fly-Rite Boys," a disc mainly of instrumentals cutting across western swing, cowboy jazz and boogie.

"When we knew I was going to be working on my album, and the guys wouldn't be involved, it was a two-fold thing. It gave them something to work on. They wanted an album to express to express certain musical ideas that we weren't able to incorporate into...the band."

"It brought a lot back to the group. We're looser with things vocally. I think they discovered new ground for themselves."

And now all are united on "Radio Favorites."

The art work is top notch with the cover bearing a photograph of a transistor radio with a thin round cardboard tuner a buyer can turn to "play" one of the hits.

"We were under pressure. We didn't have very much time. I didn't know where to go (with) a theme for the packaging. We went on a short little loop to the southwest, and we were in a town in Arizona, Bisbee (with many) old antique stores. I saw an old show poster there of some sort of fair where they were going to have a bunch of country western singers. 'Come see all your radio favorites.'"

"That may be a good title," Big Sandy says he thought.

"It's an inside joke. To me it's sort of funny. Knowing that none of these would really be favorites the way radio is these days."