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It's time for Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys

By Jon Johnson, July 2003

The late '80s and early '90s was an exciting period for American rockabilly revivalists. Acts like High Noon, Go Cat Go and the Dave and Deke Combo were bristling with ideas and toured incessantly at home and abroad.

Of those revivalists acts - indeed, the only one which still performs regularly today - Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys have come the closest to some measure of national awareness, with a nearly decade-long stint with HighTone Records, TV appearances, occasional performances on the Grand Ole Opry and years of hard touring.

In early June, the band released their latest album, "It's Time!," their first album for the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Yep Roc label following nearly a decade with HighTone.

"This album came together easier than 'Night Tide' did," says Williams in a telephone conversation from Anaheim, Cal., referring to the group's last album.

"I had a difficult time writing the songs for 'Night Tide,'" continues Williams, who, somewhat in contrast to his public image as a raconteur and bon vivant, comes across as surprisingly soft-spoken during the interview, frequently taking time to consider his responses before answering. "We were in one of our many transitions musically as a band. We were caught in the middle of trying to do stuff that fit in with what we had been doing and had become known for and still wanting to step out a little bit more and take some left turns along the way. And also just the personal situation I was in in my life."

"(The new one) just felt more natural. We were fired up about it. We were working with a new label, (and) we felt like we were finally starting to click with our current lineup. It was kind of a cool situation where we had Wally (Hersom, the band's former bassist) on the other side of the board, somebody who came from our background."

Born in 1964, lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Robert "Big Sandy" Williams grew up in southern California, the son of an Oklahoman father and a second-generation Mexican-American mother. From his father, he developed a love for country, rockabilly and western swing. From his mother, he inherited a fondness for R&B, doo-wop and blues.

After learning to play guitar in his late teens, Williams began performing in two '80s bands - first in the Moondawgs and then in Robert Williams and the Rustin' Strings. The latter band also included bassist Wally Hersom, who would join Williams in the Fly-Rite Trio following the demise of the Rustin' Strings; even recording the Fly-Rite Trio's first album, 1990's "Fly Right," in his small studio.

Unlike every one of the band's releases since 1992's "On the Go," the new album was recorded live in the studio, with former bassist Hersom returning to handle production, just as he'd done on the band's very first album. Williams says that the new album was recorded live in the studio in order to re-capture some of the spontaneity that was heard on the group's early records.

That meant playing musical chairs - literally - on some numbers, with guitarist Ashley Kingman playing electric bass on the Elvis-esque "Chalk It Up to the Blues" while steel guitarist Jimmy Roy moved over to guitar, for instance. On other numbers additional musicians were brought onboard, including Dave Alvin accordionist Chris Gaffney (who appears on "Bayou Blue") and Bill Bateman and Gene Taylor of The Blasters (who both guest on "You Mean Too Much to Me").

"This one was completely live. We hadn't done it in a while. When we hooked up with HighTone and Dave Alvin (who produced 1994's "Jumpin' From 6 to 6" and the following year's "Swingin' West") we had the option of fixing parts (with overdubs). It's nice to have that option, but sometimes I think it took away the feel of what we were doing."

Considering that the band has been around for nearly 15 years now it's perhaps surprising that they haven't yet released a live album. Williams says that it's been seriously considered recently and that it'll probably happen sooner rather than later.

"It looked like we weren't going to be doing anything else with HighTone, so we thought we'd put out our own live record. We were set to do that, but then we started talking with Yep Roc, and we thought it wouldn't be a good idea to put out a live album as a first record with a label. We did actually record a couple of nights at the Doll Hut here in Anaheim. That's in the can, and we might do something with that down the line."

Yep Roc has developed a reputation for signing acts covering a range of musical styles, including Caitlin Cary, Jason and the Scorchers, Nick Lowe, and Los Straitjackets (with whom Williams toured in 2001 as a guest vocalist). The band's current contract calls for three albums.

"The last record, 'Night Tide,' was just a one-off," says Williams, explaining that it was the result of a one-album deal with HighTone that was signed after the group's original contract had expired. "The original contract had run its course. They had done for us what they were going to do - and vice-versa - and we don't feel like it ended with any bad feelings. It was just time for a new start. We were talking to Yep Roc, and they were really excited about the possibility of working together."

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