American rockabilly underwent a period of extraordinary growth in the '90s following the demise of high-profile acts like the Stray Cats and The Blasters about halfway through the previous decade.
Although difficult to find a major American city that didn't have at least one rockabilly-influenced act in the latter half of the '80s that wasn't capable of attracting a decent audience, few attracted a national or international following.
The pendulum began to swing the other way in the early '90s, thanks to Big Sandy's Fly-Rite Trio (later the Fly-Rite Boys), the Dave and Deke Combo, Go Cat Go, and, in particular, an Austin-based band called High Noon.
High Noon, over the course of the past 14 years, has proven to be special. The band is quite probably, in fact, the most respected rockabilly band of their generation.
Though the band's members – vocalist/guitarist Shaun Young, lead guitarist Sean Mencher and upright bassist Kevin Smith – went their separate ways in early 1997, they recently reconvened to record their first new studio album in 7 years, "What Are You Waiting For?," just released on Finland's Goofin' label, but available in the U.S. through Goofin's U.S. branch.
Young, 34, grew up near Denver and credits his parents' love for early rock 'n' roll for his interest in rockabilly at a young age.
"A lot of guys around that time who got into rockabilly got into it through the Stray Cats and punk," says Young. "My parents were big Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly fans, so I grew up with that music in the house. My dad was stationed in Korea in the early '60s. He had a reel-to-reel recorder that he'd record armed forces radio shows on, and he'd record all his buddies' LPs. So I got into those things when I was a kid. Those armed forces radio shows were actually the first place I heard 'Summertime Blues' by Eddie Cochran. I just really liked that sound."
"Of course, when the Stray Cats hit, they had an impact because you didn't hear anybody doing that kind of stuff. But something was missing from the whole neo-rockabilly sound; the subtlety and the swingin' groove of the records I liked. It didn't quite have that same effect. So, it was kind of a process for guys our age back then to figure out how to play it right."
Smith, also 34, also grew up in a Denver suburb and first played with Young in 1987 in the Shifters, a punk-influenced neo-rockabilly band that moved down to Austin the following year and broke up a few months later.
Unlike Young and Smith, Mencher, 40, had grown up in Washington, D.C. A lawyer's son, he regularly skateboarded as a teenager with future punk rock kingpins Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag/Rollins Band) and still shows considerable enthusiasm for the sport.
In spite of having had several friends in D.C.'s blossoming punk scene, it was rockabilly that captured Mencher's heart as a teenager. In the late '70s the nation's capitol had a thriving rockabilly scene, boasting the likes of Tex Rubinowitz, Danny Gatton and Evan Johns' H-Bombs. Mencher was quickly hooked.
"My dad is a great piano player," says Mencher. "And I was supposed to play piano as a kid, but I really wasn't into it. I'd got out to the ballpark or go out with my buddies skateboarding. But I guess the music was inside me because I was always thinking about it. When I was growing up, George Gershwin was The Man in my house. There was a great appreciation for American music."
"When I heard rockabilly, that really got me going. I saw Tex Rubinowitz play at Ft. Reno Park, and that was it."
Moving to Austin in 1987, Mencher played with a country band called Chaparral before hooking up with Young and Smith at a 1988 jam session in his garage shortly before the Shifters called it a career.
"Sean was playing guitar with a country band," says Young. "And (Kevin and I) did some gigs with them when we were in the Shifters. We were freaked out by Sean's playing. It was the first time we'd ever heard anyone fingerpick like Merle Travis."
"Sean and Shaun had gotten together and played a little bit and had gotten to know each other," says Smith, picking up the story. "And after the Shifters broke up, I had decided that I was going to move back up to Denver and play with a band up there. And before I did, Shaun Young said, 'Why don't we just go to this guy's house and play some?' I'd had this (upright) bass not for very long, so we went over and played for four or five hours."
"We ran through so many songs we knew in common," says Mencher. "Sun sessions stuff, all the Buddy Holly stuff…Pretty much the top 40 of rockabilly, in a way. That was the first time we had found the ingredients for the sound that we all loved and made us happy."
But Smith returned to Denver, only to realize that in "the band I was playing with up there, I would probably end up playing electric bass. And I realized that I would rather be an upright bassist in Austin than an electric bassist in Denver."
Once Smith returned to Austin, the group got down to business with a vengeance. Between 1990 and 1995, the group was prolific, releasing a number of LP's, EP's, 45s and even a 78, with the bulk of the band's earlier recorded output today available on 1993's "Glory Bound," 1995's "Stranger Things" and 1998's "Show and Dance Plus.
In addition, the group regularly acted as a backing band (with Young sometimes moving to drums) for the likes of Wayne Hancock, Ronnie Dawson, Martí Brom, Mac Curtis, Ray Campi, Johnny Carroll and a number of other rockabilly and country acts.
The band also toured like there was no tomorrow, hitting Europe, Japan (a '96 Japanese date was released three years ago as "Live at Diamond Hall"), Russia, the U.S. and even the Canary Islands throughout the first half of the '90s.
In 1996, Mencher and his family moved to an island off the coast of Portland, Maine, consequently cutting back on the band's activities.
"At the time, we were playing primarily overseas or on tours, which is a pretty hectic lifestyle," says Mencher. "It's really fun, but it can be pretty taxing, especially if you're domestically inclined. I wanted Leslie (Mencher's wife) to be closer to family. My brother lives up there, my mom lives up there, and it seemed like a calmer and more stable lifestyle since Shaun, Kevin and I were meeting at airports anyway."
The group called it a day in early 1997 following a handful of New England shows a few months earlier. Mencher played around New England with the Sean Mencher Combo (with his wife Leslie on bass), toured and recorded with Wayne Hancock and produced records by several New England rockabilly and country acts including The Racketeers and the Starline Rhythm Boys.
Young played drums and guitar with a few Austin acts (Jive Bombers and the Horton Brothers), worked on his hot rod and recorded a High Noon-ish solo album in 1997, "Red Hot Daddy."
"A lot of that stuff was written with High Noon in mind," says Young. "But the solo album was something I did to keep myself sane. At that point, all I was doing was playing music, and Kevin and Sean were too busy to satisfy my appetite, and I had friends who'd come over and play just for the heck of it." As for Smith, he recorded and toured with the eclectic Asylum Street Spankers and 8 1/2 Souvenirs, did studio work (including on the upcoming Pam Tillis album) and filled in with the Brian Setzer Orchestra before forming another band and doing an upright bass video.
The three stayed in touch, performing on rare occasions when Mencher was available (including a triumphant reunion performance in 2000 at the Viva Las Vegas festival), and in October of last year, Smith contacted Mencher about the idea of recording a new record.
"I had spent the whole year being a stay-at-home dad," says Smith. "And then my wife got laid off, so I got excited and asked myself, 'What can we do with the time off?' So, I gave Sean a call to see how he felt about it."
"Kevin had called me, and we (discussed) getting together and doing a recording because we knew we'd be playing Green Bay," says Mencher, referring to a massive week-long rockabilly festival taking place in Wisconsin in July. "We wanted to go into Green Bay (with a new album). In other words, not just, 'Oh, here's High Noon. They did some neat stuff back in the '90s.' So, we decided to get together in January and make a new record."
Co-produced and engineered by former Hot Club of Cowtown bassist Billy Horton, "What Are You Waiting For?" finds the band picking up pretty much where they'd left off with Smith's hyperactive upright bass playing providing an anchor for Mencher's Travis-influenced guitar work and Young's rhythm guitar and vocals.
While no one seems in a hurry to return to the group's punishing road schedule of the early '90s, largely due to family commitments, with Mencher's recent return to Austin, the band have quickly returned to their old haunts around the Texas capitol and have booked a few appearances outside Austin at festivals in Denver and Lubbock, with more to come.
"I am so thankful for everything," says Mencher, ruminating on the band's career and return. "I consider it all a blessing."
Picture of High Noon (left to right): Sean Mencher, Shaun Young and Kevin Smith