Houston’s Blackgrass Gospel specializes in a strain of bluegrass you may be unfamiliar with. It’s called “outlaw bluegrass,” and we could easily do an egg-headed historical analysis of the styles that form this interesting hybrid of American musical genres. We could philosophize on the cultural shifts that set these music varieties in motion for a hellbound collision with each other, but really, where’s the fun in that? Better to simply let the band’s bassist Chris Barnes give you a definitive and kickass definition.
“[Outlaw bluegrass is] exactly what it implies: a bunch of vagrants, vagabonds, punks, metalheads and outlaws playing the shit you heard on Mawmaw and Papaw’s FM radio on Sundays,” he says. “We all grew up in somewhat religious households. I had just about every extreme Southern religion crammed down my throat until I was a teenager and was able to make my own decisions about what I believe. That’s kinda where Blackgrass's message comes from. We ain't saying we worship the devil, or telling you to do it. We're simply stating that the world, the church and the people that run it are fucked up. If you're a sinner, you're gonna answer for it. Plain and simple.”
If that sounds like your kind of revival, you’ll want to put on your rugged Sunday best and head over to the Continental Club tonight for the band’s set in supporting Rhode Island punk-bluegrass outfit Filthy Still. The Gospel’s banjo player, Randall Platt, says it’ll be a reunion between like-minded bands.
“I saw Filthy Still's tour dates about a year ago and they were going from NOLA to Oklahoma with some empty dates in between, so I sent them an email telling them that I could get them a Houston show and put them up for the night," he says. "They quickly responded and said that would be great. We had the show at Union Tavern on a Saturday night and had one crazy-ass afterparty. So, this year they contacted us about finding a show. I went through my contacts and got lucky with the Continental Club. It’s badass when one of your favorite bands calls you to play a show with them.”
Both bands were recently in Wisconsin for the Farmageddon Records Music Festival, which features other acts of this ilk, including the Goddamn Gallows and S.S. Web.
“It was absolutely amazing to be able to play this festival, so much talent on one stage," Platt says. "It was good for Blackgrass Gospel for many different reasons. We made so many new fans and so many new contacts. The people that travel to attend these festivals do so because they really love this kind of music. We met so many people from around the United States that book or have contacts for venues, so when we go on a longer tour we will have an easier time finding places to play and stay. It will be good for Houston because we also talked to a lot of bands that don't normally play in our area, so hopefully there will be more bands from this genre coming through Houston.”
Houston seems to be a good place for this burgeoning blend of styles. The band has had success booking shows all over town, in places like Scout Bar, Last Concert Café, Old Quarter Acoustic Café and Bub’s in Alvin, which they consider “our hometown watering hole.” They’ve seen kindred spirits like the Dead Rabbits, Hard Luck Revival, the Grizzly Band and others bring some grittiness to the folksiness of traditional bluegrass, country and Celtic styles.
“Houston is an interesting city for music — there's hip-hop, EDM, metal, punk, soul, ska, reggae. All kinds of music, but not much roots music," Barnes points out. "People come out and hear bluegrass for the first time and lose their minds. I always hear shit like ‘What is this?! I've never heard anything like this!’ It’s a good feeling to expose people to something new and old at the same time. If they hear Blackgrass, there's a good chance they're gonna go Google bluegrass and learn something about where it came from and some of the greats from the past, as well as the new stuff.”
“When I was growing up, punk rock kids didn't like metal kids, metal kids didn't like country and so forth. The best thing about this genre is that everybody from all walks of life and all musical backgrounds play and enjoy it,” notes Platt. “I think that’s what will continue the growth of this type of music. There's no formula, no right or wrong way to play it, and people just get excited when they see a banjo player in a GG Allin shirt.”
Barnes says the band in its current form has been together about a year and a half. Before that, he was playing guitar for a psychobilly band, The Ghost Storys, and says he “got the upright bass bug.”
“I got my first upright, played it until it almost fell apart until I figured out how to slap half-ass decent," Platt recalls. "It was a birthday gift from a stripper I was dating. She made a damn good investment!”
“We had a hell of a time getting the current lineup,” says Howell Windham, the band’s guitarist. “We finally found the right mixture and the rest has been history. I got my start playing punk-rock guitar and just kept it going from there. I still write and play punk — not much has changed, just got a grandpa guitar and dropped the amp.”
Platt, Barnes and Windham share the stage with Earl Wang (harmonica), Jimmy James Copeland (mandolin), Ed Soria (drums) and Tina Fuller (fiddle). Having a full band proficient in bluegrass instruments and keen to the idea of giving the music an edgier sound was the culmination of a long-running idea Platt had formed.
“I had been wanting to start an evil-sounding country band for years and had written many songs on guitar," he says. "At the time I was playing guitar in a punk band call Spastic Fit, but the drummer dropped out and I was trying to start a different project. I invited Earl Wang over to tryout as a singer, but it didn't quite fit for what I was going for. But his voice was perfect for all these creepy country songs I had wrote and that was the very beginning of Blackgrass Gospel.”
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Aside from tonight’s show, which also features Austin’s Junkyard Mongrels, Blackgrass Gospel’s next chance to take you to church will be August 27 at Rudyard’s, where they’ll share a bill with the outlandish hillbilly punk of Hank Williams III side man Joe Buck Yourself.
Barnes isn’t saying you need to be in the congregation — but you might be missing out on some soul-savin’ righteousness if you’re not. At least some Houstonians seem to be ready to be delivered, he says.
“It seems to me that people have finally realized that original music can definitely draw a crowd and be something much greater than a jukebox or the same old cover band.”
Blackgrass Gospel hosts Austin’s Junkyard Mongrels and Rhode Island’s Filthy Still tonight at The Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors open at 8:30 p.m.; $5.