Sins of the Past: The Story of The Cheatin' Hearts (Pt. 1)
To coincide with the release of The Cheatin' Hearts retrospective Sins of the Past on Ruckus in the Records, I thought I'd scrawl some virtual liner notes explaining, apologizing and defending the songs, the times and the people that made them. I've been threatening to write a book lately about this period of my life, I reckon revisiting these 23 songs will suffice.
"The Devil's Band" I wrote this for James Hunnicutt after first meeting him 8 or 9 years ago. I was living in Chico at the time and we did a weekly "Honky Tonk Nite," which basically started as live Cheatin' Hearts practice with free whiskey and beer (for us) and somehow became a (usually drunken) roots music showcase for some of the more colorful locals and occasionally touring bands with a night to fill (or kill). I gave bands the 50 dollars the bar paid me, free drinks (well, the bar did) and a place to stay. Which, back then, was pretty good for a Monday night.
I know I can't remember every band that played a Honky Tonk Nite, but a partial list includes The Rainieros, Hellbound Glory, Owen Mays, Mr. Plow, Power of County, Lazy Lester(!), The Hollowbodys, The Idle Threats, Mae McCoy & the Neon Stars, Brass Hysteria, Trucker's Wife, Three Fingers Whiskey, Mad Bob Howard (Asskickers), Barbara Manning (SF Seals), WITCHDICK...and James Hunnicutt and Hard Money Saints who were on tour together the first time I met them.
James called from Salt Lake City to tell me they'd be getting into town late. I responded that it was fucking crazy for them to drive all the way to Chico from Salt Lake because I could only guarantee them 50 dollars and no one in Chico buys merch. In many respects Chico was pretty good to me. Hell, where else could I get a weekly gig with bottomless glasses of whiskey? And people showed up and partied like motherfuckers...hippies, punks, metalheads, Samoans, a notorious Northern California biker "club" and a few rednecks...they just didn't buy merch. I'm not sure most of the people who showed up even liked country music....or live music for that matter.
Anyhow, Chico was inundated with "jammers". Musicians who would float from bar to bar with their instrument or ask to play yours (after asking to sit in). Nowadays I might be more welcoming, but back then I had pretty stringent fucking perimeters of what was allowed and what wasn't (although I didn't stick to them). First, "Honky Tonk Nite," hence the title, was supposed to feature exclusively country music. Which it did....except for WITCHDICK, a semi-acoustic doom metal band, that played every week. And a couple touring punk bands here and there. Other than that, though, nothing but country music.
And no Birkenstocks. And no fucking "Wagon Wheel". Two sure fire ways to get one's ass kicked off the stage at Honky Tonk Nite were 1. Wearing Birkenstoks and 2. Playing fucking "Wagon Wheel" (and that was before Hootie did his version). I found Chico is pretty liberal. Thus, the townfolk took exception to my "You Can't Rock in Birkenstoks" campaign and me printing signs that said "NO JAMMERS!," which I put outside the club on Honky Tonk Nite...nights. I reckoned back then (and still do) that independent and original artists deserve the few stages there are left to play on. I can't imagine living in a world where there's a need for cover bands. And there's perhaps an even greater need now than there ever has been for people to write and perform songs conveying their experience (however fucked up it is) with passion and sincerity --especially if they've sacrificed their comfort and sanity and shit-canned their worldly responsibilities to do it.
So James and The Hard Money Saints insisted on showing up. "We want to meet you," James told me, which was my first Hunnicutt-inspired moment of "This guy is either the nicest person I've ever met or he puts on clown makeup and sharpens his axe when no one is around". James had short, slicked-back hair back then (it was 2009 I think). He sang Faron Young's "Tattletale Tears" so I immediately liked him. I had no idea then how many roads I'd travel down with him (literally). James has driven me home drunk and puking in the back of my own car and sat with me in a Denny's parking lot in the middle of the night giggling and arguing about 80's metal for two hours totally sober when we had a five hour drive to the next town ahead of us. I wish I would have been more sober more often around James back then. It probably would have been best if I was that way around everyone back then.
It was my first of many times watching James sing to a drunken and disinterested crowd. It's fucking inconceivable to me that one can be in the same room James is singing and playing in and can somehow remain transfixed by a game of fucking billiards. A long time ago I interviewed a band who described the audiences in bars as "an incidental crowd that doesn't give a shit". I blamed it on Chico back then. But it's just how most people are. Van Gogh never sold a painting when he was alive and lived with a prostitute that he was in love with that didn't give two fucks about him. His family and everyone in the town he lived in thought he was bat shit crazy. And he was one of the greatest artists to ever live. So, if you're an artist--even a singer--I reckon you can expect to encounter this archetypal pattern (and a slew of assholes stomping on sunflowers singing "Wagon Wheel").
Anyhow, I wrote the first few lines in my head while listening to James sing. "Maybe none of us is ever gonna be stars/We'll probably die unknown playin' these goddamned bars/Singin' to the backs of drunks who just don't give a damn/It's the price you pay playin' in the devil's band". I kinda stole the title from a line from a Billy Joe Shaver song, "If I Give My Soul". I'm honored that a few folks have done their own versions of this song, including Dog Bite Harris (who's putting out this Cheatin' Hearts album on Ruckus in the Records), The Hollowbodys and Billy Hood. It's doesn't express the kindest or humblest sentiments, but I guess it must resonate with some folks and I'm thankful for that.
Here's a video of "The Devil's Band" featuring James on drums and Frank from Hellbound Glory on bass and "Banjer" Dan Mazer of JB Beverley's Wayward Drifters on banjo.