Webb Wilder wants to set the record straight. The self-proclaimed "last of the full grown men" is not one to strap on a big guitar and try to cover his errors and distract his detractors with a lot of thrash, twang and thunder. The part-time B-movie star, full-time sage and ten-year touring veteran wants to come back to Texas with a clean slate.
It was not Patsy Cline, as the liner notes of his new Town and Country CD claim, who had a hit with "Too Many Rivers to Cross." Wilder put that note in the text, but, he drawls, "It has been pointed out to me that it was Brenda Lee."
In any case, it probably was the Johnny Rodriguez version he had in mind when selecting the tune. Basically, "Too Many Rivers" is the one good memory he has of a nightmarish stint as a country DJ in his native Hattisburg in 1979. That year was, he recalls, "a horrible time for country music," and disco was not yet dead. Still, it is unlikely that he heard a swing version of "Too Many Rivers" in 1979, and yet that's how Wilder and his Nash Vegans cover the melodic lament. Why? "We're not purists, anyway," Wilder explains. "We're basically a rock and roll band who aren't afraid to go out on a limb and saw if off, just for a buzz."
The rest of the band has no opinion or part in this controversy. The story the Nash Vegans are sticking to is that they've only heard their cover of the classic. But it seems odd -- even with this odd band -- that a talented group of musicians could have lived and worked in and around Nashville without hearing "Too Many Rivers." And these are musicians who cover, on one CD, one of the lesser known Flamin' Groovies' tunes, Waylon Jennings' "Nashville Bum," Jimmy Rogers' "Rockin' Little Angel" and the theme from Goldfinger. One would think little gets by them.
To hear Wilder tell it, there's nothing odd about it. He and the Vegans, with their road-honed musical talents, slapped Town and Country together like college kids making a car tape. Now, most frontmen, most times, would say, as Wilder did, "It was the most fun record to make we've ever made, and the most natural and the least punches and fixes." But Webb Wilder is not most frontmen. Wilder is a skilled and calculating raconteur, and we should take the lack of flourishes and folderol in that claim as a sign of blushing modesty and enthusiasm. Plus, he has carefully paced stories about how much fun the band had.
Wilder, slow as molasses and just wallowing in the telling, says: "The way we did 'Ain't Living Long Like This,' I had no idea we were going to do that song, although Bobby (producer and longtime collaborator R.S. Field) and I were in a band called the Viewmasters that played it and I always thought it was a great song and I guess in the back of his mind he figured I knew it. I had forgotten that the Viewmasters played it but we had decided to do 'Too Many Rivers' and I was playing my Gretsch guitar set for a very clean, soft tone. I was in the garage and Les James Lester was in the dining room with the drums and we were going to do it that way and just add everything later and we did 'Too Many Rivers' and then," and at this point he finally picks up the pace, "and then Bobby ran over to the amp and turns it to ten, and says, 'Okay, don't think about it -- 'Ain't Livin' Long Like This,' same key! fast!'"
What ends up on the CD is a distorted, rowdy and very tight version of the Rodney Crowell song. Abnormal recording conditions or not, the product is solid. Must be annoying, really, for some posers and wannabes. Webb Wilder and the Nash Vegans come rolling on out, all dressed-up middle-age men in their cowboy suits, indulge in a few minutes of comedy and then play a song everybody ought to know, and they play very well. Imagine how galling this is for those serious, suffering and self-consciously sensitive musicians -- for the lame wonks who labor over over-done standards, for the bloodless toadies who try to express themselves with earnest eye-rolling instead of musicianship and for cover bands who don't have the guts to play the music they believe in, for rootless, soulless radio-hit copycats. Those poor slobs just work and work and work and nobody cares and then here comes Webb Wilder and the Nash Vegans, goofy grins and two-tone shoes, to drive the ladies wild and get everyone on their feet.
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Webb Wilder is all about the groove and, conveniently, he says, "I think this particular combination of musicians we have right now is the groovin'est one." He wants the people to dance, or at least move. That, he says, "is why the groove is so important, rhythm is so much more important than the lead and less is more. Rock and roll, well, if you can't dance to that, let's bury you -- it's on the two and the four. That two and four thing, to me it's the most accessible thing in the world."
But, Wilder hastens to points out, he's not coming to the Fabulous Satellite Lounge to critique our footwork. Naturally he's pimping his fourth recording Town and Country, but, more important, he's on a mission to make people have fun. "Basically, you can tell if your music is working if people are moving. They don't even have to dance, they might just be swaying." Chair-bopping is okay, too, just so's you enjoy yourself.
Wilder makes roots music for those who grew up fighting BB-gun wars during the day and eating pot pies and fish sticks in front of the TV at night, and who keep a few 8-tracks around, for sentimental reasons. He's always rocking, and his message is simple: "Real music is out there, and real people are making it." Joe Bob Briggs has given Wilder's show his official "check it out." Need we say more?
Webb Wilder plays at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 16. Los Straight Jackets opens. The Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington, 869-2665. $10.