When author Elmore Leonard decided his character Chili Palmer (of Get Shorty fame) would manage a rock band in his new book Be Cool, Leonard cast his net for a group to use as a model in the novel. Leonard listened to Aerosmith, Alanis Morissette and No Doubt, but none of them clicked. Chili Palmer couldn't get behind those bands, Leonard believed; neither could their lyrics further Be Cool's narrative. Then an L.A. radio executive told Leonard's assistant about a Boston-based group, the Stone Coyotes. Leonard went to their show at The Troubadour in Los Angeles.
"A guy with a short sandy beard and glasses came up to us after the show," remembers Stone Coyotes lead singer Barbara Keith. "What struck me was that in the middle of the usual post-show chaos, this guy was very calm and confident. We heard afterwards that after our last song, Leonard had turned to his assistant and said, 'That's it!' "
Leonard told the Stone Coyotes he wanted to use their music and the essential quality of the band for Chili's new adventure. From the band's debut CD, Church of the Falling Rain, the author picked four songs to include in Be Cool. Leonard connected with the passion of these lines, which crackle forth from the title track: "Just another schoolgirl / Caught out in the modern world / Listening for songs of the holy ones." The rock band as holy cultural warriors -- that's the essence of the Stone Coyotes.
In the beginning, all Leonard knew was he wanted to have a band from Odessa, Texas, with a female lead singer. Leonard asked the band to write a song specifically for the book called "Odessa." He didn't give any further instructions. Keith did a little homework about the flatlands geography and combined it with her grandma's stories of growing up in Texas, and Leonard's wish was fulfilled.
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While the characters in the fictional band Odessa are pure Elmore Leonard, there are threads of the Coyotes' philosophy -- specifically, the stripped-down sound of this guitar-based rock trio. The Coyotes are a raw, hook-laden band that sounds nothing like the punk, rap or pop groups on today's radio. Drummer Doug Tibbles uses a minimal drum kit: kick, snare, high hat and crash cymbal. His wife, Barbara Keith, plays a thin-necked B.C. Rich guitar, the no-frills type often used by heavy metal groups. Keith's vocals reference country singers like George Jones and Patsy Cline but also rock and soul singers like Chrissie Hynde and Aretha Franklin. In person, the Stone Coyotes come off fast, wild and a little bit out of control. Says drummer Tibbles, "The last show we did we got three encores. And so the third encore we did a song that Barbara made up on the spot. And she'll do this sometimes. We're improvising without a net."
The band is a real family -- mom, dad and bassist John Tibbles, who is Doug's son from a previous union -- but they certainly don't look like the Partridge Family. Barbara Keith wears Armani suits, mostly black and white. Doug wears T-shirts and Levi's. John favors casual suits, no ties.
In their prior L.A. showbiz life, the elder Tibbles was a sitcom writer, whose credits included such tube staples as The Munsters, Bewitched, The Andy Griffith Show and Love, American Style. Keith was a successful singer-songwriter whose efforts were recorded by everyone from Hank Snow to Barbra Streisand. She abandoned a promising solo career when the family abruptly soured on El Lay glitz. The family moved to western Massachusetts, where Doug Tibbles learned to play the drums. An 11-year-old John learned the bass alongside his father. After years of woodshedding in the basement, the band started gigging in 1987.
"It seems crazy when you look at other bands," confesses Keith. "Nobody can accuse us of being overnight sensations. Mostly it was a matter of trying to find our own sound, a sound that wouldn't be diluted and changed once the band started to achieve fame. There's simply no shortcut to playing together over a long period of time."
The Coyotes self- produced their first three releases, turning down numerous indie label offers. They distribute their music solely through the Internet via Amazon.com and their own Web site at stone coyotes.com. Because these are the only places you can order Stone Coyotes albums, the band knows where each and every fan comes from. Keith says that Houston has grown steadily as a Coyote-friendly territory. Although the band has never made a local appearance, KPFT has played the Coyotes in heavy rotation for more than a year. Tracks like "My Little Runaway," "Lucky Day" and "Shake" have the kind of vitality that makes you sit straight up when you first hear them on the car radio.
In 1996 the band began making inroads into New York and L.A. clubs. Their brand of twangy, straight-ahead rock -- with lyrics about rock redemption -- made believers out of the big-city fans. Not bad for a band that has no label support, does little promotion, receives no major radio airplay and has been ignored by Rolling Stone.
At an age where a majority of rock musicians are endlessly re-enacting some kind of oldies sound, the Coyotes are moving forward as a unique voice in today's safe pop world. They honor elements of traditional American music while fashioning a distinct roots rock sound. "As long as we feel like we have the fire and vitality to create, that's what we're going to keep doing," Keith promises. "We never feel as if we've arrived. This is a lifetime commitment."
It's a devotion that has not gone unnoticed, least of all by Elmore Leonard, who has read passages from Be Cool at selected Stone Coyotes gigs. "The second I heard the Stone Coyotes, I knew that it was something I could describe and Chili could understand and like," he told a Boston journalist in a 1999 interview. "It's rock 'n' roll with a little twang."
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