Country Rockin' With The Brooklyn Cowboys - An Interview
by Laurie Paulik
Uh, oh. It’s back. Circling the edges of established musical genres, as always.
It was an unwanted stepchild during its genesis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Not because it wasn’t beautiful and innovative and creative but because it couldn’t be pigeon-holed, slotted, or otherwise properly placed.
The Brooklyn Cowboys have brought back that compelling hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll and country known as country rock. No, not the watered down, pop-ish stuff heard on radio today. The real thing - the stuff that can only come from true rock ‘n’ rollers imbued with a love for and understanding of country music. The stuff that proudly and unabashedly mixes rock riffs with steel guitar and fiddle, apologizing for neither.
The Brooklyn Cowboys have all had long careers in the music business. The band was originally formed by songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Walter Egan and songwriter/drummer Fredrough “Fredro” Perry. The rest of the “Cowboys” are steel guitarist Buddy Cage; Michael “Supe” Granda, bass guitarist and founding member of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils; keyboardist Michael Webb; former 5 Bucks member, Brian Waldschlager on background vocals; and country artist Joy Lynn White (acoustic guitar and vocals).
The “Cowboys” first came together in New York in 1996.
“I grew up in Queens,” said Walter Egan. “I spent 17 years in California and then moved back to New York in 1992. I met Fred, who lived in Brooklyn, when I went there on some business. Fred had some songs he had written and he wanted to do country and we found we had a common love of country and country rock.”
“Two of the foremost proponents of the country rock sound in the '60s were the Flying Burrito Brothers and the New Riders of the Purple Sage,” Fredro Perry said. “We’ve managed to unite links to both those bands.
“Walt (Egan) wrote with Gram Parsons who started the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman. Buddy Cage was the pedal steel player for New Riders of the Purple Sage. For our record, Doin’ Time on Planet Earth, we pulled in Joy Lynn White, Brian Waldschlager and some younger people who were involved with the alt-country and Americana scene. We like to think we got a nice synthesis of ‘60s country rock and modern Americana music.”
“To put our music in context, you would have to go back to Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds in the middle ‘60s, when there was a folk-rock thing” continued Egan. “Even the early Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead would be included.
“There was a natural progression of folk into country. Graham (Parsons) became the avatar of country rock, the lightning rod. He was a special person. He had a real charisma about him. Certainly, where I’m coming from, relating to country music, had a lot to do with Graham and his sensibilities. The rock ‘n’ roll part of it came naturally.”
“We’re rock ‘n’ rollers,” added Perry. “All the great bands that we like have done a mix of various styles whether it’s the Burritos, or the Rolling Stones, Rockpile or Doug Sahm...”
We (the Brooklyn Cowboys) not only have a unique point of view, stretching all the way back to those early days,” said Egan, “we also have a reverence for the music that people are picking up on. Our album is pretty homogenized. It’s not like we’re trying to show our influences but they just come out.”
What do different members of the band bring to the group and how do such creative individuals find the give and take necessary to forge a shared vision and resolve creative differences?
“Well, Walter’s an artist. Everything is infused with that sensibility,” Perry said. “He’s a guy I like to rely on to tell me if something in the production sounds good.”
“Fredro is the soul of this band,” returned Egan. “He is the vision behind this band. The lyrics he puts to his songs bring dimensions that I never could have probably brought.” Perry’s stick- to-itivness and persistence in perfecting each song arrangement also has ensured that the Cowboys have put out the best product they could.
“Supe (Michael Granda) plays bass in a style a lot of guys don’t play anymore,” Egan said. “He brings a certain musicality to the group. He can drop the perfect bass part in and anchor a song. He’s also a funny guy to be around. He keeps us cracked up.”
“We don’t have many creative differences,” Perry continued. “Sometimes one of us just believes in something strongly enough that the others will say, ‘fine’.”
“Sometimes it comes down to ‘it’s your song, okay, we’ll do it your way.’” Egan said. “The best of bands have a dynamic tension. A band is like a multi-faceted person - it has all these qualities that make an album the way it is. Making an album is a group effort, and in a good band, the total is more than the sum of the parts.”
Perry and Egan wrote or co-wrote all 13 tracks on Doin Time on Planet Earth. Egan actually co-wrote “Carolina Calypso” with the late Gram Parsons before the latter’s untimely death. “You and I and the July Moon” is a feel-good mainstream country rocker. “Jukebox Girl” not only has Redd Volkaert, lead guitarist for Merle Haggard, but Vassar Clements’ inimitable fiddling throughout. The bittersweet, stone-cold country number, “Hearts on Fire,” was originally recorded by Emmylou Harris and Parsons. “Reachin’ for the Sky” includes such memorable lyrical phrasing as “you can lead a horse to water but that won’t make him drink. You can tell a man the facts of life, but that don’t make him think.” How can it get better than that?
Great song writing, lyrics and story ideas come from many places, sometimes openly or easily, sometimes not.
“I do a lot of writing in my sleep,” laughed Perry. “For example, ‘Burning Bridge,’ I wrote in my sleep. “I can be drifting off and next thing I know I’m wide awake with something running through my head. I carry a tape recorder everywhere, even sleep with it.
“Another way to write songs is to just have an idea, or a title or a first line and think of what you want to do with it,” continued Perry. “Like “What the...??!!!” Actually the full phrase is ‘what the world needs now’ and I just kept thinking ‘what does the world need?’ The answer was pretty obvious that the world needed love, so that’s what I wrote.”
“Sometimes a song will just come right out at you,” recalled Egan. For example, Nancy Wilson of Heart, was promoting a new CD and had autographed a copy for Egan. On it she had written, “Long time, no rock.” Egan thought that was a great line and wrote it into a rockabilly song. On the hit "Magnet and Steel" released earlier by Egan, a key line, “With you, I’m not shy”, was suggested by a low-rider car with a license plate simply stating “Not Shy.”
“Everybody has those experiences, but not everybody pays attention to them,” Perry said. “They’re not looking for something, so they don’t notice it. The first step towards becoming creative in writing or whatever is to look for the inspiration.”
“I do a lot of writing when I’m driving,” Egan said. I keep a notebook. Or, I collect chords. I’ll sit around and play guitar and sort of gather up the chords and see what I have.”
Perry and Egan, having written numbers for Doin’ Time on Planet Earth, went to Nashville only to be told by a publishing company that the songs were “nice but a little too country.”
“Here in Nashville it’s kind of like they’re having an identity crisis,” Perry said. “No one wants to be involved with country. In the capital of country music no one wants to do country. Okay, we’ll go to New York and do country.”
The Brooklyn Cowboys have made full use of new technologies to market and promote their music. In the virtual world, the music can originate anywhere and still be available to all.
“The internet has been big for us,” Perry said. “We have a web site, www.brooklyncowboys.com and we’re selling our CD on Amazon and CDNow. There’s so much you can do on the internet, we’ve really only scratched the surface. Traditional press and radio demands were so great at the beginning that only now are we able to get deeply into it.”
Perry and Egan believe the internet aids artists in regaining control of their product. They acknowledge that, even so, a record company is still needed. However, “It’s better to control what they’re doing than to have them control you,” acknowledged Perry.
Times have changed yet country rock still defies borders. It’s been called “too country” for country music and it’s probably still too country for rock’n’roll. But like any other music that’s both heartfelt and masterfully done - it will find an audience.