The Mild Ones
At San Antonio's MacArthur High School, Beau Sample didn't listen to the type of music normally heard blaring from car stereos in the parking lot. Instead of Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson or Sugar Ray, his soundtrack leaned toward Carl Perkins, Roger Miller and little-known Nashville musicians like Narvel Felts. Narvel Felts?
Despite the fact that this was 1997 -- and not 1957 -- Sample formed Cave Catt Sammy, undoubtedly the city's only teenage rockabilly band. And now that its members are old enough to order a beer at one of their gigs, they hope the age factor will fade as a topic of interest.
"There are some people that ponder on our age, but most think it's a cool thing. And a lot of people are impressed by it," Sample says. "But a lot of bands back in the '50s like Sid King, the Five Strings and the Sparkletones were young too."
Sample hopes his band will have a higher name recognition than those forgotten acts. And he's well on the way, with two CDs (including 2001's Comin' On Strong), a new three-record deal with New York's Rubric Records and a coast-to-coast tour schedule of 200 gigs a year. It's an impressive beginning for a band of any age.
"One of the things we really like is being on the road and seeing how different crowds react," he continues. "On the West Coast they like to dance, so we play a lot of those numbers. In the East, they're more into listening. And for shows in [this region], it's a little bit of everything."
"A little bit of everything" also describes Sample's musical path over the past decade. After learning piano and guitar in junior high, he eventually settled on the upright bass. Growing up, he saw shows by a family friend's old-time country cover band and San Antonio roots rock/country acts like the Dead Crickets (now better known as Two Tons of Steel) and Sean Castillo and the Hubcaps. After he'd heard this music, Rolling Stone cover subjects didn't hold much interest.
"I just couldn't get into what the other people in school were listening to, the songs with all this hate and angst. It wasn't my bag," Sample says. "What I liked about this music was not only the beat but that it wasn't very serious. It was for having fun and dancing."
At MacArthur High, Sample (lead vocals, bass) and buddy Steve Scott (electric guitar) found Dustin "Ol' Smoky" Hutchinson (acoustic guitar) and Paul Ward (drums) to complete Cave Catt Sammy, the nickname given to Beau "Sammy" Sample by the group's former piano player.
Sample's sizable ambition, self-assurance and newfound ability to write original material brought the band to the attention of Kevin Geil of Two Tons of Steel. He has released both of Cave Catt Sammy's records on his own Big Bellied Records. As for the band's writing and decision-making process, there's little doubt as to who's running the show.
"I write most of the songs, except for a few covers. I come up with the whole concept in my head and just show up at the studio," Sample offers. "The rest of the band will add little things, and it does turn out better." He also notes that he's not the kind of guy who can rack his brain for new material. "It usually comes to me while I'm driving and I'll have to pull over. I guess I need to get a recording device."
One aspect of Cave Catt Sammy that Sample consciously crafts is its overall sound. This is not the raucous rockabilly of the Stray Cats, Paladins or the Reverend Horton Heat. Cave Catt Sammy's sound is as neat, concise and freshly scrubbed as the band's picture on the cover of Comin' On Strong. This is the rockabilly band that you'd want your daughter to date. In the title track, Sample fends off the amorous advance of another woman, saying, "I can't go home with you / Because I'm a gentleman." Likewise, he slams the brakes on passion in "Baby Back It Up," hopes to do little more than steal a kiss in "Dressed to Kill," and gets peeved only when another feller tries to dance with his date in the catchy "South Texas Boogie."
"This is the stuff that I like," Sample says. "The clean sound of studio musicians from Nashville" in the '50s and '60s. "They were professionals." When it's suggested that, frankly, the clean-cut group probably couldn't pull off the leather jacket-and-tattoo strain of the genre, he just laughs. "Nah. That just wouldn't work."
But youth has its perils, some of which are writ large on Cave Catt's CDs. The sound of Comin' On Strong, while expertly executed, is often generic. And though Scott shows plenty of creativity in his guitar tones, Sample's vocals can be sterile, like an actor on the first read-through of a play. As part of an inevitable growth process, Sample says that the band's next CD, due in April, took a different direction. "It was a lot looser and more rocking because it was easier for us to relax in the studio," he says.
Cave Catt Sammy's goal after the release of the next record is to expand its audience beyond the fervent rockabilly underground whose members are gently satirized in Robbie Fulks's "Roots Rock Weirdoes." You know 'em: girls in Bettie Page cuts, big red lips and poodle skirts, and guys with greasy pompadours clad in name-embroidered mechanic shirts with packs of Luckies rolled up in the sleeve.
"We'll always play to the rockabilly crowd, because they're the ones turned on to the scene. They found out about us first, and they've supported us over the years," Sample says. "Now it's getting to be more -- what would you say? -- normal people."
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