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Starline Rhythm Boys live the honky tonk life

By Ken Burke, August 2002

As Billy Bratcher of the Starline Rhythm Boys will attest, great old-school country music doesn't necessarily have to emerge from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

"The thing about New England is, it has a rich history of country music and bluegrass," says the Vermont-based Bratcher. "A lot of diehards think you've gotta be from the South to make believable country music, but our hearts break the same as anyone else's, we drink the same booze on occasion as the Southern guys, and our Telecasters sound the same."

Boasting a heady, gutbucket mix of Bakersfield-styled honky-tonk and '50s rockabilly, the Starline Rhythm Boys may be Vermont's best-kept secret.

However, based on the lavish critical praise heaped on their recently released second album, "Honky Tonk Livin'," that may soon change.

Based in Burlington, Vt., the trio comprised of lead singer Danny Coane, lead guitarist Big Al Lemary and the bass-slappin' Bratcher honed their distinctive roots-music chops in well-respected bands before becoming the Starlight Rhythm Boys in 1998.

Coane, 52, AKA "Little Rollin' Danny C," is something of a Vermont institution. Playing professionally since 1963, Coane made his first public appearances as part of a surf band called the Jesters before switching over to bluegrass during the mid-'60s, which eventually led to a early '70s/late '80s stint with the regionally popular Throbulators.

Lemary, 51, cut his musical teeth on the Beach Boys, whose sense of harmony still impacts his Don Rich-flavored back-up singing. A rabid fan of obscure '50s rockabilly Joe Clay, the burly guitarist wailed roadhouse rock'n'roll with Badge who played on the same bill with the likes of Commander Cody, Joe Ely and the Marshall Tucker Band.

Bratcher, 39, is the group's true eclectic. A digger of styles as disparate as jazz and hardcore honky-tonk; Bratcher's life was changed when he first viewed Jack Smith and The Rockabilly Planet.

"I used to go see Jack Smith back in the late '70s/early '80s and Jack would light up the honky-tonk with this very fresh sound that I'd never been exposed to. Jack would be swinging his microphone on top of this bar wearing these white bucks and he just had the hottest little band. It was going for the jugular type of music -- all sweaty with beer and excitement."

In 1993, Bratcher helped start the Buck & the Black Cats, a top-flight rockabilly outfit, which he eventually left to play bass for Texas honky-tonker Wayne Hancock. "Wayne's appeal to me was A) Songwriting, but B) having that same mentality that I saw with Jack Smith. I mean, I looked at Wayne as an outsider in a way, a rebel. When you're on the road with Wayne, it just feels like you're in combat. I loved it."

According to Bratcher, the Starline Rhythm Boys came together quite by accident.

"Me, Al, and Danny were just casual pickin' one night and it just jelled immediately. They just pulled out something like 'Swingin' Doors' and started singing together and everyone just looked at each other in amazement. We knew instantly after just that one song that we had something special together."

Although Bratcher asserts that the leadership is evenly divided among the Rhythm Boys, the savvy bassman writes most of the drumless trio's songs. In addition, his connections helped them find the perfect producer for their melding of rockabilly and Bakersfield country, High Noon guitarist Sean Mencher.

"I first met Sean when both High Noon and Buck & the Black Cats were recording for the Rockabilly Record Company out of Denver for Willie Lewis. They were playing with Ronnie Dawson down at Johnny D's in Somerville. We made the trek down there to meet these guys because they were brothers of ours on the same record label. Sean and I had a spark from the first meeting, and I just had a feeling that we would do something musically someday."

Bratcher admires Mencher's ability to keep the band loose and confidant in the studio even while demanding an extra take.

"When we think we've really got something and come off our high horse behind the glass, Sean will say, 'I like what you're trying to do, but you can do it better. Get back out there, and give me another one.' It's like a grueling football session with that guy - but it's worth it."

The results are two extraordinarily atmospheric discs released on their own Tin Town label, "Better Luck Is A Barroom Away" and the aforementioned "Honky Tonk Livin'." The latter features the fluid steel-guitar work of Kevin Maul, who generally tours with Robin and Linda Williams and fiddle player supreme Frank Orsini.

Despite critical praise, ingenious promotional ideas la zany flip-books and their own candy bar, not to mention regular bookings at top local venues, the Starline Rhythm Boys haven't been able to quit their respective day jobs yet.

Yet their hardline, old-time honky tonk music has earned them the admiration of such notables as Vassar Clements, Bill Kirchen and Billy Lee Riley. Moreover, locally, they are one hard act to follow.

"A few months ago, we played in front of 1,500 people at the Flynn Theater in Burlington with Ricky Skaggs," recalls Bratcher. "We left to a standing ovation. When we got backstage, Skaggs looked at us and then looked out at the crowd and said, 'Jesus, did you guys leave anything for us?' That was our career highlight so far because that was a sold out performance in our hometown where everyone could see what we were really made of."