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Kerosene Brothers aren't whistling Dixie

By Jon Johnson, November 2003

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Steve Earle's 1989 album "Copperhead Road" was an equally large touchstone for Wheeler in tracing the Kerosene Brothers' approach.

"To this day I can't understand why Steve didn't stay with that (approach). To me that's something you build a sound around."

Wheeler says that from the start he envisioned the Kerosene Brothers as focusing on the kinds of themes that one rarely hears on country radio these days.

"Getting the material together was interesting, trying to keep the songs around a certain theme. Not that we're trying to be purveyors of doom or anything, but these days all you seem to hear is the light side, the sunny side (and) the gospel side of hillbilly music. That's definitely part of the tradition, but there's a really long tradition of songs about drinking, cheating, killing and hell, too. My favorite bluegrass group was always the early Stanley Brothers. I think Carter (Stanley) was a brilliant arranger. They always sang a lot of dark songs."

Rounding things out in the Kerosene Brothers are bassist Chad Mize, drummer Dave Harrison and Dale and Don Wayne Reno (on mandolin and banjo, respectively); both sons of the late bluegrass banjo player Don Reno (of Reno and Smiley fame), and respected musicians in their own right thanks to a series of '80s and '90s recordings - with elder brother Ronnie - as the Reno Brothers.

Says Wheeler of his first encounter with the Renos, "I ran a little demo studio in Nashville in the mid- and late-'90s - recording pretty much anything that wasn't commercial - and somebody brought them over to play on a session. They're not your typical bluegrass players in the sense that they grew up listening to and playing with their dad and liking hillbilly music, but also they grew up liking a lot of rock 'n' roll, too."

"Dad was very open-minded to all music," says Don Wayne Reno, 40. "I wouldn't say he was a big rock 'n' roll fan, but he could see the good in any music he was listening to. He didn't prevent us from listening to it or playing it. I think he was one of the first banjo players to (record) rock 'n' roll. In 1955, he wrote and recorded a song called 'Country Boy Rock & Roll.' For anybody in bluegrass to do anything like that at the time was totally unheard of."

"I know there are people who think we're abandoning our roots in bluegrass," continues Reno, "But I don't think we're doing that at all. There's a wealth of great bluegrass players out there playing the tradition, and we'd be just another band doing that (if we were) in that situation. This band gives us the opportunity to take what we've been doing for the last 20 years to a whole new audience. I think we're actually helping bluegrass by doing what we're doing. We all have a mutual admiration for each other. John's one of the most talented people I've ever had a chance to work with, and his work ethic is unsurpassed."

Considering that Wheeler and his band started out working on a different project, the question naturally arises whether he and his band mates ever felt trapped by the success of Hayseed Dixie.

"Not really trapped," says Wheeler. "I will say that when we got the Kerosene record done finally, the label that put out the Hayseed records (Dualtone) said, 'No no no - give us a Van Halen Hayseed record.' And there's no reason to make the same record over and over again. We're selling more of the Kerosene records at shows than we are any of the Hayseed titles now. I'm not going to badmouth the Dualtone guys, but they didn't believe in (the Kerosene Brothers) at all."

Given the success of the Hayseed Dixie records, it's not surprising to learn that the members of the band don't have to work day jobs. The group performs most weekends throughout the southern U.S. and devotes the rest of the week to band-related business.

Wheeler says that he and his cohorts have made decent livings over the past couple of years, but dismisses the notion that the success of the Hayseed Dixie records has significantly changed their living standards.

"No, man. If you don't sell millions of records, you're not driving a Porsche. Everyone's making a living doing it, but our standard of a living isn't some New York penthouse."

Asked about future plans, Wheeler has some ideas, but has learned not to plan things too far ahead.

"Another Kerosene Brothers record is next. We're going to record it in December, and it'll probably come out in late spring. We've talked about doing another Hayseed record at some point and making it about half originals, but I don't know. If you'd asked me a year ago, I wouldn't have told you we were going to make the Kiss record."

"I don't like to plan stuff too far in advance. I think we're living proof that stuff never works out quite the way you plan it anyway."

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