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Sloppy Joes

For Austin's Weary Boys, energy and exuberance trump technique

Oops. Somebody forgot to tell the Weary Boys that moving to Austin to play country music was akin to shipping coals to Newcastle. No matter. Despite the fact that Travis County boasts more twang per square foot than almost anywhere else, the Northern California expatriates have quickly risen from playing the streets to playing packed clubs across Texas.

"We just decided one day for the hell of it just to move out to Austin," says fiddler Brian Salvi. "You can't go very far playing music there," he says, referring to the Weary Boys' native Humboldt County. "So we thought about moving to a bigger town, and figured, well, we want to get as far away from our families as possible. So we chose Austin. And it's worked; we haven't seen our families in over a year."

Salvi and Weary Boys singer-guitarists Mario Matteoli and Darren Hoff had played in rock and bluegrass bands back home, but they didn't really get into vintage country until later. "What inspired us to take up instruments and attempt to play country was getting into Hank Williams records and Willie Nelson," explains Salvi, who all but winces when he admits he used to be an Aerosmith fan.

Fast and loud can sound better than skill. Punk and the Weary Boys are proof.
Fast and loud can sound better than skill. Punk and the Weary Boys are proof.

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Though the three played together, they weren't a band, per se, until they decided to move away from home and give their music careers a shot. So, as Matteoli tells it, "We drove down to Texas in a Buick."

"Checked into a Ramada," continues Salvi, "looked for jobs and a place to live, and started playing on the street." The spot they settled on was the open-air Renaissance Market on the drag, where leather craftsmen, patchouli peddlers and bead stringers ply their wares across the way from the student center of the University of Texas.

Little did they know that they had landed on a longtime launch pad where acts like Lucinda Williams in the '70s and Poi Dog Pondering in the late '80s began their Austin careers. But dumb luck has been such a consistent fellow traveler with the Weary Boys that the term would make a good album title for them someday.

Despite the outfit's lack of instrumental finesse and polish, they got a good reception. "Even when we started down on the drag, the merchants told us that they'd drive a lot of the other street musicians off because they didn't like them," notes Salvi. Over the next two years, the group rose through the roots and punk music clubs to score a prestigious weekly residency at the Continental Club and a busier slate of roadshows than many Austin acts with far bigger reps.

What's the secret to the Weary Boys' rapid success in a city where you can barely sneeze without spraying on a country band? It could be that the quintet's bluegrassy sound (created with a configuration of electric and acoustic guitars and a rattling snare drum) is riding the wake of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon, though Clinch Mountain authenticity isn't exactly their forte. "We just started playing old country songs, trying to rip them off the best we could, and they ended up sounding like we sound," explains Matteoli. "You can't ever really do it like them, especially when you lack the technical skills."

"So you just play faster and louder," says doghouse bassist Darren Sluyter, who Salvi insists be referred to as the band's token Texan because he hails from Harlingen. "We needed a little authenticity," Salvi adds. "Can you put that in the article?"

But just as it did in punk rock, fast and loud can still rule. And like with many budding punk acts, the appeal of the Weary Boys could be attributed to their energy and the sheer joy they seem to get from playing as a band. They mix familiar old numbers -- like "Worried Man Blues," "Shady Grove" and even Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" (which they call "Runnin' Hidin") -- with a handful of original tunes and slightly more obscure covers with the zeal of the newly converted. And with the populist loosey-goosey rawness of their delivery, the Weary Boys give off an "anyone can do it" vibe that also parallels the punk ethos. Call it back-deck music rather than front-porch; it's a style where the boards have gaps between them rather than a tongue-in-groove fit.

The Weary Boys had no idea that in a city with scores of acts under the Americana banner they might face some stiff competition from folks who've been playing and singing roots music longer then the Boys have been buying razors and shaving cream. "We didn't put that much thought into it," Salvi says. "That's been our motto. It's gotten us this far."

So how did they pierce the twangy haze and stand out? "I dunno," ponders Salvi. "We had our own sound. The difference between us and a lot of other country bands is that we're not that good. In a lot of those bands, you take the fiddle player, and the dude shreds shit up. I've only been playing for, like, four years."

But since all of the players are at the same level of inspired newness, it seems to click. "I think the more we learned to play together, the more it worked," Sluyter theorizes. "It's really weird when we play with other people. It's basically a growing experience, but you really have to learn to play the song."

Something's going right for the group. They've managed to get two self-released CDs out in the past year and enjoy an ever-expanding regional circuit, while other acts with discs released by actual labels infrequently venture beyond the Austin city limits. Perhaps persistence is the key to the Weary Boys' success. They tried to record a live album earlier this year at Louisiana's notorious Angola prison (where Leadbelly did time) and saw the plan go down in flames because of a technical snafu. Yet the group will return next month to play the prison rodeo and record again.

When they look at what they've accomplished in two short years in Austin, the Weary Boys almost start sounding like grateful award-winners. Almost. "We feel real fortunate to have the success we've had," Salvi says in all sincerity. Then he adds with a wink, "At least that's what we say."

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