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These Lucky Stars swing at Hollywood & Western

By Clarissa Sansone, July 2000

Sage Guyton is aware of what people presume when they see a 21st century band playing in a 1940's style. "There's always the worry there's going to be style over substance," says the singer and songwriter for L.A.-based Western swing ensemble the Lucky Stars.

But wearing a white cowboy hat, western-style jacket and tie is all part of the musical package to Guyton. "When you see a mariachi band playing, they don't show up in jeans and a t-shirt," he astutely observes.

With the release of "Hollywood & Western," the band's debut on Ipecac Recordings, Guyton and the boys prove there's even more swing to 'em than meets the eye.

The band started to take shape in the early '90's. Guyton met piano and accordian player Whitey Anderson while both were in a band that played "Johnny Cash train beat, '60's kind of stuff," and the two split off to explore hillbilly music.

"I started listening to earlier and earlier (country) music, wondering where it came from," Guyton says. Mooney Harding joined them on bass, Charlie Paddock on drums, and then Jeremy Wakefield (J.W.) became the steel guitar player.

"I think we all just happened to be lucky enough to meet like-minded people," explains Guyton of the band's early decision to shift focus from hillbilly music to Western swing. J.W. "turned me onto it," he says of Western swing, which he feels is "a pretty high musical form" and takes "advanced muscianship" to master.

Recently, the Lucky Stars' line-up has changed with Mike Bolger playing piano, accordian and trumpet, Wally Hersom (formerly of Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys) playing bass, and Lance Ray Soliday (of the Dave and Deke Combo) on drums. The group plans to tour the West Coast this fall and hopes to make it to the East before the year's end. "The van is waiting in the driveway, and my suitcase is packed," says Guyton, eager to get on the road.

Guyton feels fortunate that the Lucky Stars have twice found players proficient in both piano and accordian. "There's not a lot of people that do this style now that have accordians," he notes. "My dream," says Guyton, "is to add one more player who plays guitar and fiddle." Players who double up on instruments prove not only mulit-talented, but also economical.

When asked whether he envisions the Lucky Stars as an ensemble of a dozen or more players, like some Western swing bands of yesteryear, Guyton says, "I think in this day and age it would be kind of cost prohibitive" to tour with such a large group, but, he adds, "There are definitely times when you'd like to have the twin fiddles."

He doesn't mind keeping the Lucky Stars a 5- or 6-member group to reproduce the "scrappy" sound of small, lesser-known Western swing groups of 50 years ago.

Guyton has such respect for Western swing that he is reluctant to place the Lucky Stars squarely within its borders, saying instead, "That's what we aspire to," and adding, "Maybe one day we can call ourselves Western swing."

"Hollywood & Western" is a good start. The 35-minute album is a short, sweet collection of wit, quips, suave harmonizing and slick steel guitar. Guyton corrals a whole herd of clichés for his song titles, which range from "Hot Potato" (as in, "dropped like a") to "Get off Your High Horse," and includes them in a menagerie of corny punchlines and relentless wordplay.

In his search for a "Sugar Mama," for example, Guyton makes the titillating offer "I'll make sure it all adds up below the bottom line." Add to this mix Spike Jones-worthy sound effects on songs like "Chisel to My Heart" and "Look What the Cat Dragged In," and the result is an album that pays homage to Western swing with back-slapping humor, instead of a stodgy purist's obsession to detail.

Guyton understands the distinction, and the Lucky Stars aren't out to pretend they were born 50 years too late. Their music, he says, is "bound to differ" from the original incarnation of Western swing, "whether we want it to or not."

He says the band is "not trying to modernize" Western swing, but at the same time, "as long as you're playing original music, original songs, you're always going to be making something new."

"I'm not trying to bring back the 1940's," Guyton readily admits, adding, "To me, it's new...As long as you're playing it, then it's happening right now." He considers "Western swingŠsuch an amalgamation of different styles" (honky tonk, jazz, blues, polka, Appalachian folk music) that it lends itself well to re-interpretation and is always "fresh."

Guyton, whose smooth voice and sharp wit come through whether he's singing or being interviewed, traveled a circuitous route before settling into the musical domain of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and other band leaders of the 1940's. He played in rock and roll bands before finding himself playing country. Western swing seemed a "cool combination" of his various musical interests, as well as a refreshing alternative to rock and roll, a form of music Guyton finds much less rebellious or ambitious than it's purported to be. "I grew up playing in rock bands...and had gotten tired of it," he says.

"I've always been interested in writing songs with goofy wordplay (with) a sense of humor, upbeat, danceable, not too morose," Guyton says, and Western swing seemed the ideal genre in which to unload his lyrical bushelsful of corn. "There's sort of an optimism to it, even in the heartbroken songs," he observes, and adds, "The kind of humor I bring to it is very much a part of that style."

The best part of the Lucky Stars' brand of music, however, is the rug-cutting that ensues at shows. "People dance to it; that's the biggest compliment to me," Guyton says.

The second biggest compliment, in Guyton's opinion, is that "people that were around to see this music when it was being played originally" go to see the Lucky Stars perform, and, he says, "When old people are dancing, then we've done something right."