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A case of writer's block works out just fine for The Hollisters

By Robert Wooldridge, March 2000

A case of the bane of songwriters - writer's block - may have done a lot of good for Mike Barfield, vocalist, guitarist and songwriter of The Hollisters.

Working on songs for what would become their HighTone Records debut and second album, "Sweet Inspiration," the Houston resident was afflicted.

"I was sitting around trying to write a song, and the lack of inspiration became the inspiration," says Barfield. "I started with the line 'something needs to charge me up' and went on from that. It's kind of funny how that one came from an urgent need to get something. Most of the time, the ones I think about the hardest I end up throwing away completely."

The song has a harder edge than most cuts on the record, with guitarist Eric Danheim contributing solos reminiscent of Neil Young.

Barfield co-wrote 9 of the 13 songs with Danheim. Though Danheim has since left the group to settle in Seattle, Barfield says the guitarist may occasionally tour with the band.

"Thrill of the Ride" was originally written by Barfield on acoustic guitar with a Hank Williams feel to it. Several arrangements were tried, but Barfield says that "we were never quite happy with it and kept messing around with it. Then, we started slowing it down and spacing the beat out, and it ended up with more of a Waylon Jennings kind of feel. That ended up being one of my favorite songs on the album."

Dave Dudley-style trucking songs are parodied on "Holes in the Road (Dumptruck)."

"I thought, 'Well, the dump truck drivers need one," says Barfield. "The producer (Casper Rawls) had me sing that in kind of a lower baritone. I used to not sing it that low. I was kidding around one day, and I had a cold and sore throat and he goes, 'Oh, man, you need to do it that way.'"

Barfield is often compared to Johnny Cash, whose influence is evident on the Sun Studio inspired "Two Trains." Barfield downplays the comparison. "I think we're a lot different from that, a lot more varied. But I'm not going to run from it."

Barfield calls "Two Trains" a "twist on kind of a rockabilly and gospel. The lyric I got just like an Excedrin headache where two people are both headstrong, you know, so I just took off from that."

The opening track "Fishin' Man" is reminiscent of Johnny Horton. "I'm very influenced by Johnny Horton," says Barfield. "The idea of living life that way - he was known as the 'Singing Fisherman.'"

The most haunting song is "The Last Picture Show," which at first seems to be a sentimental ballad until it becomes apparent that the song is about the murder of a woman.

"I came up with the music and the chord changes and the melody," recalls Barfield. "And then the guitar player (Danheim) wanted to make it dark. I was going to write more of a love song, but that ended up being the thing to do with it. That was a different kind of collaboration than we usually did together."

There are also a couple of interesting obscure covers. "Little Ole You" was a Wayne Walker song that Barfield had found on an old rockabilly compilation. "I found out he had written with Webb Pierce. He was like a cut above the standard rockabilly writers. His stuff was kind of different so I always liked it, and it just fit my voice well. I've been doing that song for over 10 years."

"Walk 'Em Off" is another little known song from the '50's. "That's got Houston roots to it," says Barfield. "It's an old Eddie Noack song. It was kind of a regional thing, and then he ended up moving to Nashville and doing A&R work. I heard he was a real drinker, but he had some really neat stuff."

Barfield credits his mother with exposing him to country music. "My mother was from East Texas, and I kind of picked it up from her - just listening to the stuff she would sing around the house," Barfield recalls. "I started getting into Hank Williams, Sr. during my high school years. Of course, I was still influenced by all the regular junk that most people were listening to on the radio. I just found myself attracted to something that was more rootsy."

Though he had played in some garage bands in his youth, it was only after having gone through a marriage and divorce that Barfield decided to give music a serious try as he entered his early 30's. It was at this time that Barfield hooked up with Danheim.

"We had played together back in '86 or '87. He got hired by The Wagoneers (in 1991), and I kept a band called the Rounders in Houston. It had an accordion player, guitar, bass, drums," says Barfield of the precursors to The Hollisters. "A similar thing but a little more rock influenced."

In 1995, Barfield and Danheim again joined forces to form The Hollisters with bassist Denny "Cletus" Dale (formerly with Webb Wilder) and Atlanta area drummer Kevin "Snit" Fitzpatrick. All were fans of the Andy Griffith and named the band after Rafe Hollister, a frequently recurring character on the show.

The Hollisters' indie 1997 debut, "Land of Rhythm and Pleasure," started things rolling.

As for airplay, "mostly it's been college radio, public radio - Pacifica Network stuff, the Americana stations, you know," says Barfield.

The critical success of "Land of Rhythm," and an appearance at the Texacali Grill in Austin during South by Southwest, led to a record deal with HighTone, which released "Sweet Inspiration" Feb. 15.

With the departure of Danheim, guitarist Chris Miller (formerly with Wayne Hancock) has joined The Hollisters. The band plans to tour extensively in Texas, with shorter road trips than in the past.

"We're going to try to tour more effectively," says Barfield. "A lot of times you're just out there, and you're beating your brains out at some of the clubs in the middle of the week."

Even with the hardships Barfield likes getting out on the road with the Hollisters.

"I still enjoy it a lot really. It gives you the opportunity to see a lot of the country, though it's mostly through a windshield."