Sign up for newsletter
 

Kerosene Brothers aren't whistling Dixie

By Jon Johnson, November 2003

The alter-ego concept - where an artist records or performs under a different identity, either with or without the artist's fans being aware of the charade - is one of the older conventions in rock 'n' roll.

In the mid-'80s, the British band XTC recorded two brilliant albums of '60s psychedelic pop under the guise of the Dukes of Stratosphear.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney has made a handful of electronica recordings (with Killing Joke bassist Youth) as The Fireman.

And even Cher recorded a hard rock album in 1980 as Black Rose, going so far as to tour behind the album and refusing to acknowledge her actual identity in interviews at the time.

Such examples are similarly numerous in country music. Garth Brooks' turn as Chris Gaines is certainly the best known to modern audiences, but examples go back to country music's earliest days. Vernon Dalhart - who recorded country music's first million-seller, "Wreck of the Old 97," in 1924 - recorded under literally dozens of different names over the course of his career.

George Jones and Buck Owens each recorded a handful of rockabilly sides under pseudonyms in the '50s (as Thumper Jones and Corky Jones, respectively), and Hank Williams Sr.'s Luke the Drifter recordings were consistently popular with fans until his death.

Carrying on in that tradition is the Nashville-based quintet Kerosene Brothers, who released their debut album "Choose Your Own Title*," in October on the Audium label.

In their case, however, the alter ego - Hayseed Dixie - has been the dominant act thus far.

Hayseed Dixie's 2001 debut - "A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC" - was a surprise hit that year, selling well in excess of 100,000 copies - a huge number for an independent release that took about two days to record - and inspiring two sequels; "A Hillbilly Tribute to Mountain Love" (bluegrass versions of '70s and '80s rock songs, plus two originals) and an album of Kiss covers, "Kiss My Grass."

"We all got together (originally) to try to get material together for something like a Kerosene Brothers record," says the group's leader John Wheeler, 33, in a telephone interview from North Carolina.

"We were going to take some original tunes and also some old public domain songs - stuff about drinking, cheating and killing - and then do them the way we did them on the Kerosene record. And while we were getting material together we got to drinking a little and started playing AC/DC songs."

"We rolled tape on it and never expected a whole lot to come of it. We passed a few copies around to buddies and it sort of made the rounds on Music Row. Independent of us, really. Even when we put it out we never really thought that it would do much, but it took off and sold a bazillion records."

The act started performing live, even playing at a private party for AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams at his home in North Carolina.

Says Wheeler, "When that record came out (AC/DC) happened to be doing a big U.S. tour, which was kind of a fluke because they only do that about every three or four years now. He called me at the house one day and said they'd been listening to it on the bus, and he wanted us to play at his party. We went and set up in his backyard. He got up and played a couple of songs with us. It was very surreal, honestly."

"I think the first record I ever bought was the (1979) Hank Williams Jr. record 'Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,'" continues Wheeler. "And I'm pretty sure the second one I bought was (AC/DC'S) 'Highway to Hell.' I always thought they were singing about the same thing. I never saw much difference between them."

It's a point which Wheeler alludes to on several occasions during the interview - that Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" and AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" are the same road.

"In the south, anyway, if you go to a Hank Jr. show you'll see people wearing AC/DC shirts, and vice-versa. It's the same audience," says Wheeler. "It's all rebel music."

Taking advantage of their new contract with Audium Records, the group has just released their debut album as the Kerosene Brothers. A collection of six originals (all written or co-written by singer/guitarist/fiddler/producer Wheeler) and five covers, "Choose Your Own Title*" turns the Hayseed Dixie formula on its ear.

Rather than presenting themselves as a bluegrass band playing hard rock covers, the Kerosene Brothers sound for all the world very much like a hard rock band that's managed to work bluegrass instruments - banjo, mandolin and fiddle - into the instrumental mix. In addition, the covers that they do perform are largely old standards like "In the Pines" and "Farther Along," though a version of the Old 97s' "Doreen" is certainly a highlight.

"I could play you demos from three years ago, and it sounded pretty much like it sounds now," says Wheeler. "That was the original idea; taking a crunchy (AC/DC's rhythm guitarist) Malcolm Young-type guitar approach and putting banjo and mandolin over the top of it. I've always been a big fan of Rev. Horton Heat, some of the Shaver stuff before Eddy died, and people like that."

1   |   2 NEXT PAGE »