Swing set

Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys: vigilant guardians of American roots music

Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys just weren't made for these times

Robert Williams has always liked to trace things back to their source.

As a kid growing up in Orange County, California, Williams, better known as the namesake frontman for the tireless rockabilly/swing combo Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, had little use for the radio-ready pop music of his own chilhood. Instead, he found himself drawn to the sounds of the Eisenhower era, namely doo-wop, R&B and honky-tonk. An ephiphany for him came when he saw an early picture of Elvis Presley holding a stack of records.

At that moment, Williams saw Presley not as a remote icon, but a music fan much like himself.

"I started wondering, 'What was he listening to?' I wondered what his record collection was like, and what his influences were," Williams says. "It led me on a little search. I would go to the local library and they had a pretty good collection. In elementary school I'd go there for hours after school, listening on headphones to the old blues and country collection that they had there, until my dad would come by and pick me up in the evening."

Williams says his earliest memories involve rummaging through junk-shop and thrift-store racks with his dad, in search of rare vinyl. "I was just fascinated by music, and the music that moved me always seemed to be stuff that was from another time. It eventually made me want to do it myself."

As an adult, the burly, soft-spoken Williams has applied the scholarly rigor he brought to his early library experiences into an accomplished quintet that plays vintage American musical forms with a rare sense of precision.

Consider the recording process for Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys' latest album, It's Time, the group's debut for Yep Roc Records. Working with co-producer Joey Altruda, the group recorded at the site of Hollywood's old Electro Vox Studio, with Altec mics, a Fairchild reverb unit, and tube amps. For echo effects, the band relied on an Ampex tape machine from the 1950s. And, as always, pedal-steel master Jimmy Roy played the Sho-Bud ax once owned by Faron Young's steel player, Ben Keith.

Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys grew out of a late-'80s Orange County scene preoccupied with revivalism, whether it was the Two-Tone ska fanaticism of bands such as No Doubt or the rockabilly and Western swing preferred by Big Sandy.

"There were lots of bands in our area playing a more modern version of rockabilly music," Williams recalls. "I was into the more traditional style and I tried to put a band together that stuck closer to that. And that set us apart from the other bands that were playing in L.A. and Orange County."

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys

9pm, Sun, Nov 21, $10
Luna Fine Music Club
6740 San Pedro, 804-2433

After two early, modestly-distributed releases, the group hooked up with HighTone Records in 1994 for a series of releases that cemented the band's reputation among retro-rock aficionados. With 1995's Swingin' West, the band leaned hard into the classic, Bob Wills brand of hillbilly swing. Three years later, Big Sandy released his lone solo album, Dedicated To You, a tribute to the doo-wop balladry that entranced him when he listened to Southern California oldies stations in his childhood.

More recently, with 2000's surprisingly brooding Night Tide - the group's final album for HighTone - and last year's It's Time, the Fly-Rite Boys have offered a fuller, more eclectic demonstration of their musical skills. On It's Time, blues and doo-wop come together for "Chalk It Up To The Blues," and Louisiana meets Nashville for the accordion-driven "Bayou Blue."

For all their studio maturation, however, the Fly-Rite Boys are really a live act. On record, Williams' voice sounds pleasant but generic, and his originals - unlike those of earlier SoCal roots revivalists like the Blasters - fit comfortably within a tradition without enhancing or recontextualizing that tradition. In a live setting, however, the band is so spirited and dance-friendly that its time-capsule authenticity feels more like an asset than a limitation.

That probably explains why this group spends up to nine months a year on the road. Williams concedes, though, that this breakneck pace tends to slow his songwriting growth.

"We have a good time doing it, and it's fun to travel around the country, but sometimes the schedule can be a bit overwhelming," he says. "It takes away from time that we have at home to work on new material. Before you know it, a year or two has passed, it's time to work on a new record, and you haven't really had time to focus on letting the creative process work. I try to write on the road, but I've never done too well with that approach."

Until recently, the group traveled across North America in a yellow school bus, but the group abandoned it at the end of their last tour, when it broke down in Canada and died a quiet death in Montana, forcing Williams and his bandmates to load their belongings in a U-Haul and head back to California.

Having ridden the crest and survived the ebb of short-lived trends like the swing revival and various rockabilly movements, the Fly-Rite Boys are happily oblivious to the latest pop culture developments.

"Sometimes things seem to happen at the same time in different parts of the country, like a collective consciousness," Williams says. "There was a `swing` scene in California that branched out to other parts of the country, and it's kind of faded. We've seen quite a few trends come and go along the way, but we kind of just kept chugging along, doing our thing, whatever the musical climate is at the time."

By Gilbert Garcia


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