Make no mistake about it: Stevie Newman, guitarist and singer for the Domino Kings, is as country as a stick. Now, we're not talking about what they call country up in Nashville, those buffed, fashion-consulted, Pro Tooled and media-savvy "stars" whose "music" is probably making Johnny Cash spin in his grave. Nope, Newman is a proudly self-described hillbilly from the Missouri Ozarks whose band can fill a Texas dance floor with two-steppers and also rock the roof off the club.
The son of parents who had a family country band, Newman grew up with music all around him in a house in the woods outside the one-stoplight Missouri town of Hermitage. "Mother was a fiddle player and singer and played guitar. They toured around a little bit back about a thousand and two years ago," he explains.
Despite being raised in a musical household, the life was "never force-fed," he explains. "They didn't discourage me from music; they certainly didn't encourage me, either. They said, 'If you want to do it, that's fine. Figure it out.' It was always put to you that plainly."
When he was about eight years old, Newman started to figure it out. He traded a pool cue for a box of eight-tracks by the likes of Bill Monroe, Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Charlie Pride and KISS. Newman says he was in "hog heaven" listening to the recordings. "You can't listen to Bill Monroe and KISS without wanting to kill somebody or have some kind of derangement," he says.
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That derangement is surely part of what makes The Back of Your Mind, the Domino Kings' third album, such a delicious listening experience. It's genuine dancehall country with a rocking twist, driven into the stratosphere by the über-twang of Newman's big rig guitar. And as for the songs, well, Newman does wonder about the rationale behind the fact that the band is playing an Austin club on Valentine's Day on their current Texas tour. "I don't know what they were thinking," he says. "We don't have any songs where people stay together. We do have some where the woman gets killed, so we do have something for everyone."
Truth be told, Newman is a husband and father, even if he does sing about the stuff that country songs used to be about. "Country music was at one time based on predominantly adult events and adult situations," he observes. And as the nephew of onetime Music City songwriter Susie McCoy, who wrote songs covered by Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan, he knows whereof he speaks.
As for what Nashville calls country today, Newman feels it's aimed at "14-year-old girls who wanted to sit at the window and pet their cat while it rains and worry about how nobody understands them." Why adopt such a narrowly targeted marketing plan? "Because they have daddies who will buy them an album to stop them from crying."
Since real country is often about hardship and struggle, it's perhaps fitting that it took nearly ten years of road work as a club band before the Domino Kings started making records that put them on the alt-country music map. Though Newman played as a teen with his parents and brothers, his first stab at going it alone almost prompted him to give it up for good.
Newman had moved to Springfield, Missouri, hometown of that singer-songwriter sensation John Ashcroft, as well as the closest thing to a city near the musical mecca (of sorts) of Branson. For Newman, Branson, that family-friendly music theme park/graveyard, proved something like a trip to the heart of darkness. "I didn't know whether I was looking for a band or looking for a day job or didn't know what I was looking for," he recalls, sounding something like Martin Sheen's character in Apocalypse Now. "So I decided to audition for Branson. And the day came for my Branson audition, and I got to thinking about how 'If I get this, I'm going to be playing in Branson.' So I made it as far as the closest music store and said screw it and sold everything and quit for a couple of years. I didn't want to play in Branson. I didn't want to be part of what people around here were already considering the anti-country movement."
So Newman labored at the sort of jobs that were "everything that hillbillies do." He got fired again and again before he at last secured steady employment in a print shop. Eventually music drew him back; he started up the Domino Kings as a weekend band playing across the Midwest throughout the 1990s. "We played all over the place. I didn't sleep much," he says with a chuckle.
After triumphing in a local round of the TV show Star Search, despite playing so loudly they were kicked off the stage after one song, the band won a recording session at a high-tech studio outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, where the likes of Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton recorded. The Domino Kings went in and cut an entire album in a day. "The best way I can describe it was that it was like we were trying to buy beer with food stamps," he says of the rushed experience. And in the end, the fancy studio wasn't what he was looking for -- he hated how the engineers made the final mix sound.
Newman brought the tape back to Missouri and handed it over to studio proprietor Lou Whitney, known as the guru of Midwest roots rock for his work with the Bottle Rockets, Syd Straw, Robbie Fulks, Wilco, Rex Hobart, Blue Mountain and a host of others. "Lou put the tape on and turned a few knobs and said, 'So you want it to sound like this, right?' "
Impressed, Newman and the Domino Kings recut the album with Whitney and put it out on their own. Then, after local lawyer and music buff Dale Wiley tried unsuccessfully to win the band a Nashville deal, he started Slewfoot Records to issue the group's second disc, Life & 20. It started winning the Domino Kings a national rep with critics and the alternative country crowd. (Today, Slewfoot has a roster of about a dozen bands.)
One place where the Domino Kings have found favor is here in the Lone Star State. By now they have enough of an audience and enough airplay on Texas music radio stations to be almost honorary citizens of our republic. (Of their next 21 gigs, eight are in Texas and 12 are in Missouri.) "Texas has done real good by us," Newman says appreciatively. He admits his band's success here was hard-won. "They've really put up with us is what they've done. They've let us come down there and establish ourselves, whereas you can't do that in a lot of other markets. We didn't just stroll into Texas and have good crowds that night."
Newman is thankful for the acceptance here and elsewhere, given that the Domino Kings play the sort of country music that the mainstream of the industry has forsaken. "I love what I'm doing, and I'm happy with the way that I'm doing it," he says. "Ideally, there would be a lot more people happy with the way I'm doing it and willing to pay for it. But I didn't get into it for the money, I really didn't. And I'm still not into it for the money."
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