NASCAR legend Richard Petty and Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, sadly and forever to the detriment of artistic culture, never collaborated on a project. But at least the Austin Lounge Lizards have put the raging "what if?" question to rest in the tune "The Illusion Travels by Stock Car," which finds The King stymied by a flock of sheep that appear down the stretch, not to mention ants crawling across his hands.
The cut is off the Lizards' latest record, Never an Adult Moment. Not surprisingly, the title reflects a deeper philosophy for the satirical bluegrass band, which -- as the guys enter their third decade of Lizardhood -- finds itself pushing elder statesman status.
"Ow. Shucks, that hurts," says singer/ guitarist Conrad Deisler. "That makes us sound so old. But I never thought it would [last] this long."
"No, I never thought we'd be one of those," adds singer/guitarist Hank Card in a separate interview. "Although [banjo player/singer] Tom Pittman might be. He's a little bit older than us. And he looks a lot older."
Since their inception the Lizards have evolved into a genre unto themselves. Their music and spotless vocal harmonies fuse solid and immediately recognizable strains of bluegrass, country, surf and rockabilly into songs like "Put the Oak Ridge Boys in the Slammer," "Shallow End of the Gene Pool" and the signature "Jesus Loves Me (But He Can't Stand You)," featuring lyrics that would give Ralph Stanley what is known in Appalachia as "a bad case of nerves." But as sardonic and wry as they are on record, it's during their live shows, with the give-and-take between musicians (not to mention the band's Waikiki-style sartorial splendor), that you get the full-scale Lizard Experience.
"Some people think that because we play funny songs that we're not serious, and sure, I can see that," Card says. "But it's interesting that people who are funny and play music are relegated to that heap of 'not real musicians,' " adds Deisler with a laugh. "I mean, Steve Martin is a funny guy, but he can play a helluva banjo. And the same goes for Spike Jones. And Homer and Jethro. Jethro just burns on that mandolin!"
But even if their detractors can't thank Deisler and Card for anything else, they should be grateful that the band's existence has led directly to two fewer lawyers in the world. That's the career path both men were headed down in the late '70s, pursuing law degrees at the University of Texas in Austin after meeting a few years earlier as Princeton undergrads. (Save your lawyer-as-reptile jokes, please, they've heard them all.) Their first collaboration was "Every Moment's Just Another Sip of Beer," the actual words of Card's then-girlfriend, who was admonishing the duo to head to a local bar before closing time.
It was at UT that the pair met Pittman, who was as long on dry humor as he was on height. After Deisler and Pittman played together in a straight country band, the trio decided to form the Lounge Lizards in 1980, adding the "Austin" qualifier only after they discovered another group had already laid claim to the name.
Deisler was already deep into bluegrass and western swing, having been raised on his parents' Roy Acuff and Pee Wee King records. Card, more of a rocker, was drawn into the music by his two friends.
Over the next few years the Lizards began playing around Austin and at bluegrass festivals with the core trio and an ever-changing cast of bandmates. When the group's humorous songs (originally thrown in as filler) began getting more reaction than the standard covers, the guys took it as a sign. Their 1985 album, Creatures from the Black Saloon, was their first recorded declaration of comedic intent. The formula was refined over more releases (and almost as many labels), including The Highway Cafe of the Damned, Lizard Vision, Paint Me on Velvet and Small Minds. After a live record, they released the acclaimed Employee of the Month in 1998.
The current band lineup also includes singer/bassist Boo Resnick and a fiddle player to be named later. The personnel void was created when Lex Browning left the band after only a year in the fiddle chair, previously vacated by longtime Lizard Richard Bowden (of Pinkard & Bowden infamy).
Of Never an Adult Moment, Deisler says it's a "little more obscure," perhaps referring to the number of pop culture and literary references laced through the tracks, including author Thomas Wolfe ("Asheville/Crashville"), W.C. Fields and Nirvana (a hilarious cover of the Radio Free Vestibule's "The Grunge Song"). And a certain Romanov court Svengali meets a ghastly end thanks to managed care in "Rasputin's HMO." A cover of the irrepressibly catchy "Hillbillies in a Haunted House" (think Deliverance meets Scream) has had rotation on KPFT.
But the record's best songs come from the Lizard experience. "Forty Years Old and Living in My Mom's Garage" describes both a subclass of people and a plotline from NewsRadio; "Waitin' on a Call from Don" aptly depicts the cold-sweated dread of anticipating a mechanic's phone call; "A Hundred Miles of Dry" was inspired by the band's fruitless search for beer while driving through a vast swath of dry East Texas counties.
Sometimes song ideas sit in a drawer awhile. "The Illusion Travels by Stock Car," inspired by The Richard Petty Story, which Card and Deisler watched a decade ago in a motel, only recently became a full-fledged number. As for the average number of people who even know Buñuel and his work, that's another story. "That song is what we call a five percenter," Deisler laughs. "It's sort of a warning shot across the heads of the crowds."
Despite the band's decidedly Texas-centric persona, pockets of Lizard-friendly towns dot the map: San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. In that last city, the Lizards found themselves playing in the foyer of the Kennedy Center during a program on American music last year -- and were surprised that most of the crowd had gathered specifically to hear them. "We're packaging something about Texas that people outside want to see, but we're also deconstructing the stereotype and making it I don't know weird," Deisler says.
So after celebrating their 20th anniversary with a show that coaxed many a lost reptile out from under his rock, the Austin Lounge Lizards look toward the future -- albeit not too seriously. And if the market for smart, funny bluegrass songs ever drops out, there's always those legal briefs to dust off. After finishing his degree, Card to this day still holds down a semi-full-time day job as a judge in the Texas Department of Administrative Hearings in Austin. In fact, he's held a position on the bench for 18 years, almost as long as he's held a guitar in the band.
Which only raises the question, Have any of the reprobates who have come before him recognized hizzoner from his night gig?
"Oh, it happens all the time!" Card laughs. "Although the black robe kind of throws them off."
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