Hey Y'All, listen to this! – May 2002
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Hey Y'All, listen to this!  Print

By Clarissa Sansone, May 2002

Hasn't "white trash" been bashed enough in popular culture? What kind of cheeky, ironic band would affect a country sound and chirp away on a number titled "We're Still Poor & We're Still Happy," a song about packing up the truck, selling off the unnecessaries, and moving to the city, a kind of Beverly Hillbillies sans cash?

The Nashville-based duo Y'All would, but do they really mean it?

In fact, they do - guitarist Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and ukulele-ist Jay Byrd (a.k.a. James Dean Jay Byrd) packed up and moved to Music City from the New York City in 1998.

In January 2001, the 34-year-olds again packed up and sold their belongings, this time for life in a trailer and on the road. They are still happy, it seems, and stillÉnot-quite-affluent.

As for the cheekiness factor: well, tall lanky Byrd takes the stage with a ukulele, shaved head and fetching green dress, while Cheslik-DeMeyer sports glasses and a straw hat, shirtless and in overalls.

But danged if the two aren't so far removed from ironic that they're downright sincere. Their respect for traditional country music comes through in conversation and on their latest album, "The Hey, Y'All Soundtrack."

"It's not necessarily mean," says Cheslik-DeMeyer, "to get out and act like a hick as long as there's something loving in the portrayal."

The dress and the overalls can sometimes act as impediments to noticing the "love" in the portrayal as well as Y'All's serious musicianship. Byrd says, when they play live, "more often than not" audience members come to "see the reverence for the music" that the band has.

Byrd's late musical blooming may partially explain the dress he sports. In their tongue-in-cheek press bio, Byrd claims he began wearing the dress, a gift from his "Uncle Joe," to make "folks stare." A 1999 New York Times article offers an alternate explanation: that the dress would "justify his presence as a non-musician onstage." Byrd concedes the initial gaps in his musical abilities - "That's why there's a jar of beans and a bag of dimes onstage," he explains - but says that in the years Y'All has been together, he has become quite proficient on his signature ukulele.

Since the couple is a couple in real life, audiences might also distract themselves from the music by presuming the show's aim is a purely "campy" one. "Just from the way we look, they assume it's going to be a certain way," says Cheslik-DeMeyer."My interest is more in making people laugh," says Byrd, a Texan, who likens himself to Minnie Pearl over RuPaul.

"We didn't want to cater to" the gay community, says Byrd, who points to the "knee-jerk reaction to country music" that's not uncommon in the gay community and the "perceived hatred" that country music has for anything other than heterosexuality. Y'All would rather draw attention through their humor and music than their sexual orientation. "We're not gay activists by any stretch of the imagination," Byrd says.

Y'All's "loving portrayal" has lasted close to a decade, beginning in Greenwich Village in August 1992 and leading to a variety act called "An Evening of Stories and Songs with Y'All," five albums, appearances on MTV and Comedy Central, a website that features an extensive travelogue written by the duo, an autobiography, "The Good Book: The True Story of Y'All," and the concept for the television variety show "Hey, Y'All."

Y'All's latest functions as a soundtrack to this currently unproduced, uncast, unscripted television program that the band refers to as a Hee-Haw/Sonny & Cher hybrid.

The album is a combination of half-minute jingles sung by "guest star" Kristi Rose, a few covers ("I Walk the Line," "The Last Thing on My Mind" and "Y'All Come") and plenty of originals, running the gamut from the earnest, folky ballad "Does It Feel Like Home" to the bizarre hokey humor of "My Mama Likes the Feel of Cottage Cheese" and "Jennifer Johnson (Boom-Si-Boom-Si-Boom)." Musicians include Roland White, Andrew Hardin and Redd Volkaert.

Byrd says the band "very quickly got the idea for a variety show," back in their NYC days. When they got to Nashville and wanted to record, a soundtrack "just kind of came up as an idea." A catchy idea it was, songs from a nonexistent program, but "the record stores are having a hard time knowing where to put (the album)," says Byrd, who says that it often gets shelved with soundtracks. When asked whether Y'All truly wants to have their own television show some day, Byrd replies, "Absolutely."

For now, though, they'll stay on the road. "On Jan. 6, 2001, we hit the road and never looked back," says Byrd. "Initially, it was a money-saving thing," he says of the decision to opt for the nomadic lifestyle. Compared to a more sedentary life of rent and day jobs, Byrd says being on the road "is certainly more interesting. We certainly enjoy it more." He goes on to say, "It's changed us spirituallyÉIt mellows us."

An unconventional act warrants unconventional venues. Instead of traveling from bar to seedy bar, Y'All typically performs in places like Unitarian churches (both are Unitarians), coffeehouses and retirement communities. "We play at all different kinds of places," says Cheslik-DeMeyer. "We did a lot of clubs at first, and then we gradually moved away from that," he says, because the band's act "is just kind of gentle in a way that's hard to compete in a noisy bar."

Some of their early gigs took place in Border's bookstores, where multigenerational crowds would gather. Kids like them, says Cheslik-DeMeyer, because of "the silliness" in some of their numbers, and because "they love to bounce." He's observed that "they get bored during the slow songs." Y'All's show appeals to the "more mature" audience for nostalgic reasons.

Sometimes a senior audience member will approach Byrd or Cheslik-DeMeyer to ask what their wives think of the show. "Most of them don't realize that we're an actual couple," says Byrd.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com
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