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The Piners stay on the track with "blue country"

By Jeffrey B. Remz, March 1999

There's country, traditional country, hot new country, alternative country, pop country and if Haak Kallweit has his way, there will also be "blue country."

At least that's what the songwriter for the Maine trio, The Piners, is pushing these days based on the band's debut album.

Kallweit, hitting 30 in April, says The Piners' music has a "kind of chugging sound, an early rock and roll backbeat sound. Buck Owens, Chubby Checker - everybody had that kind of sound. The 'blue' is basically from the fact that we have the harmony singing. We always have a thread to some sort of blues. There is no straight blues. It kind of has a blue feel."

Kallweit also could call it "train country," given his seeming fixation with the transportation mode in many songs on the musically diverse disc featuring country, a touch of blues, folk and bluegrass.

Kallweit says, "I don't know what the frigging deal is with the trains. You get into a vibe. Maybe it was a certain week or something I was listening to a Buck Owens show where he called his sound train beat driven. I was getting into Jimmy Rodgers at the time. It's just the whole vibe of trains which happened to be up and going during the initial writing period."

"Loneliest Yodel in the World," from the album, is about Rodgers, known as The Singing Brakeman.

A rousing cover of "Smoke Along the Track," first a hit from Stonewall Jackson and later covered by Dwight Yoakam on his second album and Emmylou Harris, is included.

"They are beautifully symbolic for everything we can think of," Kallweit says. "The whole country was basically put together by railroads."

"The next album could have no train songs," Kallweit says. "It's not a constant theme."

Whatever the sound, the group - Kallweit on lead vocals and bass, Boo Cowie on vocals and Pip Walter on guitar - have made big strides in a few years, winning a Winterhawk bluegrass fest contest, putting out a CD and growing as a band.

Kallweit and Walter have backgrounds in country, while Cowie's is rooted in folk a la Joni Mitchell.

"I really came into my love of country music when I met Pip four years ago," says Cowie, a Florida native. "He turned me onto Emmylou Harris...I just fell in love with her style and choice of music."

In high school, Cowie was "doing the pop thing, a New Waver. I turned the corner and came back to roots." She was in a slew of groups in high school and beyond.

Cowie, who teaches in a Montessori school for three-to-five year olds, later became a mother and put music on the backburner. "I don't know many moms doing this band thing with guys on the road. I just said, 'too bad. I still have this dream."

"I just had to chase it," she says. "I'm still chasing it. I'm still living it. It's a great process to go through - every step."

Cowie knew of Walter through mutual friends and saw him play in other bands over the years.

Eventually, they hooked up, playing together informally.

"I didn't have a clue what I was doing, " Cowie says. "I was doing whatever folk songs I had. He showed me who he loved - Emmylou, Steve Earle and Alison Krauss. He said, 'learn these.'"

The two formed The Piners in 1995. They fired names at each other. "Every song that we were singing was a torch song," Cowie says. "It seemed to fit. We were pining over choices in life and our lost loves."

Cowie and Walter played together for a year. "We were using bass players occasionally, and that added a lot."

So much so that they decided to get a full-time bassist.

It so happened Walter also gigged with a trucking type band, Diesel Doug & The Long Haul Truckers out of Portland.

Kallweit also played in the band, which he helped start.

"I was playing lead guitar, developing that twang style," Kallweit says. "It was pretty fun. (Band member Scott Link) had so many songs. I had so many songs. There wasn't time in the night to really both of us do all of the songs that we wanted to do."

Kallweit came over for rehearsal with Walter and Cowie about 2 1/2 years ago. "Wow, it sounded good," says Cowie. "From then we kept practicing."

Kallweit says, "Once I heard the singing, that was it."

"I'm a big Beatles fan, a big Beach Boys fan.," he says. "I always thought that's what you got to have."

They played out in the Portland area. "We practiced our asses off, took singing lessons together and applied to Winterhawk to showcase," Cowie says.

Winterhawk is a well-known bluegrass summer bluegrass festival in New Yoakam which has a contest for independent bands.

Twelve bands were picked. The Piners were number 13, first on the wait list.

"We had already paid to go," Cowie says.

Two weeks later, Winterhawk called back to say a band cancelled.

"We competed, and we won. I don't know how we did that," she says.

The Piners received $1,000 and got an invitation to return in 1998 on the regular stage.

"We have the standup bass with just the three of us with Haak original songs. I think vocally they liked it enough. it was different enough," Cowie says.

"It was very inspiring," Cowie says of the win. "The three of us felt we got something here.' We all had similar goals in that we want to take it as far as we can take it. It did open doors as far as exposure."

With the momentum on, The Piners released their album at the tail end of 1998.

Cowie says the intent was for the CD "to be our calling card" to record companies.

From a musical standpoint, Cowie says, "We got a lot going on as a band - very diverse (musically)...We have a big range."

"Musically we're basically gearing towards our vocals, letting them really come through, shine through the music," says Cowie, a strong vocalist in her own right.

"I hope we're not confusing people by putting female vocalist, male vocalist, varied songs," she says. "I like to think people like a variety."

Cowie, 39, says her favorite song is "Reckless Heart." "It stands out the most. Haak wrote it for me. It's upbeat, a little pop flavor in it. It makes me feel young. "

Kallweit said the eclecticism was no shocker. "We probably cut six or seven songs from the record to make it actually not too much the same. I wanted it to be eclectic."

"It's a diverse album that hung together," Kallweit says.

"Beer Stained Letter" was basically a play on words. "I spilled some beer on a set list, and I just it's a beer stained set list," Kallweit recalls. "Pip is always Mr. Word Association guy."

That led to a lyrical takeoff on Richard Thompson's "Tear Stained Letter." "It was this stupid, silly little thing," he says. "I liked the ring of it. I didn't remember 'Tear Stained Letter' enough (musically)."

Kallweit says his favorite song will always be the lead off "Austin Texas." "It's simple perfection. You couldn't boil it down any simpler than that. Every lick is meant to be there. It was also the first song The Piners ever sang. Still to this day, it just kicks ass."

Kallweit isn't hung up on a particular country sound or style. "We're going to do whatever we think sounds good," he says.