Lucky Horseshoe

Somebody up there likes me, so they provide me with little accidents of grace.

Horseshoe, 1996.

That may be true in concept, but at the moment, Greg Wood, Horseshoe's burly lead singer, looks less like an accident of grace than a walking disaster. It's a Sunday morning, and Wood -- decked out in his favorite casual wear, a T-shirt and black gym shorts -- is a touch strung out. He's been awake all night, and airborne debris from last night's performance at the Blue Iguana (cigarette ashes, lint, whatnot) is still nesting in his mass of tangled, curly brown hair. The gig went well, Wood confides, though he's not sure if the club's management was happy with the turnout. Still, the band kept it together nicely, and when you consider that Horseshoe's live shows have a habit of sounding like rehearsals -- and its rehearsals like something found just this side of hell -- that's no small footnote.

And neither, for that matter, is the band's first-ever showcase slot at Austin's South by Southwest Music Conference this week. In a year when the number of Houston acts invited to play the event is pitifully small, Horseshoe managed to be among the chosen. Still, flanked by Horseshoe drummer Eddie Hawkins and guitarist Scott Daniels at a local eatery, Wood is doing his best to make it appear like he couldn't care less.

"Fuck South by Southwest," he says. "I [tried] to get into that thing for years when I didn't have a CD. I thought it was supposed to be for unsigned acts to get noticed by labels -- bands that don't have a way to make an album. Now that we have a CD, all of sudden they want us."

No thanks, as it happens, to any of the guys in Horseshoe. It was their self-appointed manager/ guardian angel Alice Romero who, unbeknownst to Horseshoe, submitted the band's material to SXSW. But while Romero provided the impetus, it's more than likely that the group's stunningly varied debut CD, King of the World (on the group's own Hiccup label) sealed the deal. Released late last year, King of the World is an unruly 73-minute behemoth, its unorthodox helping of styles and potluck fusion of influences as generous as its sprawling length. There's Southern-fried boogie rock a la Lynyrd Skynyrd and Little Feat (Wood's grainy vocals and white-trash beat poetry bear more than a passing resemblance to Feat's long-deceased creative light Lowell George); heart-wringing C&W balladry in the Bakersfield tradition; and crafty hints of the band's affection for bands from the British Invasion (the original invasion, that is). Even Wood's obsession with the hair-trigger repetition of '60s psychedelic rock seeps out on a few tracks. It seems that Horseshoe's philosophy of making music is akin to its philosophy of eating: It doesn't really matter what you mix together on your plate. Everything goes to the same place.

"We're robust," says Hawkins. "We don't do things in moderation."
Adds Wood, "I don't necessarily buy into the fact that CDs have to be any specific length. King of the World is a bunch of songs, it's a CD, man. You don't even have to get up from your chair; you can just sit on your fat ass and skip around from your seat. And people are complaining because it's too long." Wood opens his arms to show off his substantial midsection. "Does it look like I know how to cut back?"

Horseshoe rose from the debris of Tab Jones, a band that aspired to bring a little rootsy authenticity -- not to mention the twisted gospel of Pink Floyd's crazed former leader Syd Barrett -- to a Houston audience that, at the time, was munching contentedly on well-chewed thrash-metal and the fresher seeds of grunge. Wood, Hawkins and Daniels were all members of Tab Jones, and when that group sputtered out quietly in 1992, the three took a two-year sabbatical to recover their wits. They launched Horseshoe in 1994, bringing aboard bassist Ben Collis, an old colleague of Daniels's from Fleshmop, and guitarist Cary Winscott to fill out the lineup. Soon, they were growing up, and messing up, in public, headlining at Last Concert Cafe, Rudyard's Pub and Mary Jane's, the last of which eventually hired them as Wednesday-night regulars.

As the months wore on, Horseshoe originals began sharing time with Johnny Cash, George Jones and Merle Haggard covers. Wood, the son of a truck driver, is an insatiable reader who gives little thought to tossing out literary references in song (two glaring instances are King of the World's "William Yeats" and "Lester Bangs"). Between Wood jotting down lyrics by the journalful and input from Daniels and Hawkins, the tunes came pouring out faster than the band could learn them.

By June 1995, Horseshoe was putting its ideas on tape at studios all over the state -- among them Loma Ranch in Fredericksburg and Sound Arts in Houston -- with Hawkins, a competent engineer, behind the boards. But money problems ensured that it would be a while before any of the material could make it to CD, which partly explains King of the World's pieced-together feel.

"It started out to be a little bit of a different album," says Hawkins. "Horseshoe as an early band kind of sounds like [much of] what's on the CD .... Some of the rawer stuff actually came in the later sessions."

Horseshoe was originally slated to make its first SXSW appearance March 6 as part of a showcase at the Driskill Hotel's Crystal Ballroom, but the band rescheduled to come in a day early so it could be part of a Wednesday, March 5 Justice Records showcase at Stubb's, with Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, Shaver, Kimmie Rhodes and Tab Benoit. They're staying in Austin through Thursday, though, to play an exhibit opening with Wonderland at the Laughing at the Sun gallery. Horseshoe chose to hop onboard with Justice as a goodwill gesture toward the label's owner, Randall Jamail. Justice hasn't signed the band -- yet -- but Jamail has agreed to help distribute King of the World, no strings attached.

"With Eddie and I, all we want to do is make records," says Wood. "All this other stuff is confusing to us. I don't want to be naive or stupid, but the hard part is reminding myself every day that I'm supposed to be making a living doing this."

Then, just like that, Wood is off on another of his signature tangents, inspired by a question about the band's stated appetite for psychedelic drugs, mention of which occasionally crops up in Wood's lyrics. "I realize that it might sound like advocacy, and I really don't like that," Wood says. "It really is a personal thing. The problem is, you can't say anything -- even the bad stuff -- because they've co-opted all the negative imagery into this whole PR thing against drugs."

Equally confusing to Wood is the inclination of some writers to lump Horseshoe into the alternative country movement spearheaded, to an extent, by No Depression magazine. Last year, the publication even featured Horseshoe in its pages.

"In the great, grand scope of things, we fit right in; we're an American band, we're influenced by primal American sounds -- very traditional country, very traditional bluegrass," Wood says. "But in terms of the direction we're heading in, no, [we don't belong to alternative country]."

And what direction would Horseshoe be heading in?
"We'll be honest with you," admits Wood, "we don't know where we're going."
Perhaps so, but at least the band knows where it's been, and how it wants to make its journey. So wherever Horseshoe winds up might happen by accident, but you can be pretty sure that it's not about to be graceful.

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Hobart Rowland