Sign up for newsletter
 

Hellcountry: all hell breaks loose for country music

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 1999

Boston's never exactly been considered fertile ground for country.

But one Massachusetts resident by way of Canada is almost single-handedly trying to change that - at least when it comes to the twangy side of country.

Stacey Taylor, who works full-time for a record company more devoted to electronica, spends her free time pushing Hellcountry, a regular series of concerts featuring country, bluegrass, alt.-country bands at small, Boston area clubs.

Taylor's work for Nettwerk Records led her to the Kendall Cafe, the main home of Hellcountry, which holds free Sunday concerts weekly and a shindig the last Friday of each month.

Through Nettwerk, Taylor had dealings with the Kendall. She also started managing Wooden Leg, a local country outfit, on an informal basis.

"When I started trying to book shows, which is what I think most people found trying to book those shows, I ran into a lot of resistance. 'That stuff just doesn't draw,'" Taylor says she was told. "They have their moments when they're supportive, but each club had their own reasons why these clubs wouldn't work."

A former booker at Kendall suggested that Taylor put together a country bill at the 55-seat club.

"The first one (Dec. 5, 1997) went so well that the owner and booking agent at the club suggest I do a series and I continue doing it," says the Toronto-area native.

"We agreed that I put aside the last Friday of every month and put together bills to really enable the people playing this kind of music in the greater New England (to) build their audience. (It's) kind of a little community for all of us and to hang out with people who like this kind of music."

"The country shows definitely have a flavor with a regular kind of clientele," says Taylor.

"For our audience, which is 30-something or 40-something - the majority isn't kids any more - they like sitting down," says Taylor, 32. "They like being comfortable. They don't like being in the indy rock hangout necessarily. There's a real gap in the club scene in Boston in that way."

Fans can sit in the music part of the cafe, although there are only nine tables.

"I've really found there's a certain core group that is pretty dedicated about coming out for the monthly shows," she says.

Among the acts playing were The Damnations TX, The Schramms and Cheri Knight.

Usually about three acts per night fill a bill.

The bands aren't exactly doing it for the money. Headliners may draw about $150 depending on the size of the crowd. Bands also may pass a hat around for tips.

Despite the low pay, bands seem receptive to the concept. "There's very little attitude," Taylor says. "I've encountered almost zero."

"Few have aspirations of being the next Garth Brooks and having more money than they know what to do with."

Taylor also can't be accused of gouging the bands. "One thing that's constant is that I've never made a dime out of this," she says.

Word-of-mouth has helped in booking bands. "Bands can definitely make more money going somewhere else, but they're not reaching the right people," Taylor says.

A few clubs in the Boston area - Johnny D's in Somerville and TT the Bear's in Cambridge - occasionally offer similar music, but not on any regular basis.

In addition to live shows, Hellcountry also has a web site promoting the shows and offering information about concerts and bands (www.Hellcountry.com). Taylor maintains an Internet mailing list of 400 people.

Jimmy Ryan, mandolin player for Wooden Leg, says the Hellcountry scene has proven positive for his band.

"For us, it's cool because we get to meet other bands," says Ryan. "It actually provides a place for the scene to exist." Ryan views the Kendall as "the clubhouse" for the effort.

"To be honest, it kind of us got us going, an umbrella for us to play under," he says.

"People go crazy," he says. "When people go to a Hellcountry, they're pretty much primed for some rock and hillbilly music."

Jim Krewson, of Jim & Jennie's Pine Barons from Northampton, Mass., say "It's just good for country, bluegrass bands as some kind of showcase. We usually get booked with rock bands. Everything is set up for rock instruments, and that's not what we are."

"Anything that gives an aid to this kind of music is good," he says. His band plays bluegrass and country around a single mike.

Taylor discovered the band by catching a gig at a watering hole in New York. "She just happened to come in," Crewson says.

The Sunday night sessions have proven a bit slower than the Friday gigs. On a recent Hellcountry show featuring the Pine Barons, most people there seemed to be friends of one of the bands playing.

But a few without connections just showed up. "I think it's great," said Peter, a Cambridge resident. "It's free, and it's early. I've always thought the time of day was unexploited basically."

The shows begin about 8:30 and are over around 11 p.m.

Asked why she likes this type of music, Taylor says, "For me, music that is honest and genuine and reproducible. People can sit down with an acoustic guitar. That can be as great as the most overproduced studio concoction on the market today. It reaches a place with me that nothing can."

Taylor likes the "honesty and fun" aspects of the music.

"Definitely honesty is one of those words that jump out," she says. "Most of the artists that are playing the twang circuit aren't doing it because they're making millions of dollars. This is who they are and what they need to convey."