Tag Archives: Waco

The Chubby Knuckle Choir: roots music from a country that never existed – but should have

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Ever mix foods that don’t sound like they should go together and find out they really really do? Like peanut butter ‘n’ banana sandwiches? Sounded weird at first, but trust me, it’s a combination that was meant to be.

I recently discovered a musical example: The Chubby Knuckle Choir, a band with a funny name and an even stranger combination of styles, with members from Bastrop, Cedar Creek, Elgin, Waco and Liberty Hill.

It’s almost impossible to pin down their sound. Americana doesn’t quite do it. Blues, bluegrass, country, rockabilly, Cajun, R&B, funk… They’re all part of the mix. It’s such a weird combination of styles, but it sounds rootsy and natural, like folk music from a country that never was, but should’ve been.

The band has five members: Rory Smith of Elgin on vocals and percussion; Perry Lowe of Bastrop on percussion; Tres Womack of Waco (formerly of Bastrop) on guitar and vocals; Slim Bawb Pearce of Cedar Creek (by way of Sacramento, California) on mandolin and other stringed instruments and vocals and Dave Gould of Liberty Hill on string bass.

The percussion is a bit unusual, with Rory pounding on congas, scratching on a frottoir (rub board) and at times a Jew’s harp given to him by his Swedish mother-in-law. Perry plays a Brazilian box drum known as a cajón (that doubles as his chair) and an African drum called a djembe.

Each member brings something into the mix — styles, instruments and songs. Tres adds a country music flavor. Slim Bawb adds Louisiana and bluegrass influences (although he’s from California). Rory and Perry contribute R&B, funk and soul. Dave Gould, who also plays in the Watts Brothers Band, brings his skill on the bass fiddle.

“People compare us to the Gourds, but I think we’re more unique,” said Tres, who helped kick start the band. He hosted  an open mic night that featured Rory and a CD release party where both Rory and Perry turned up to sing harmony. They enjoyed working together so much a musical relationship was born. In time they picked up Slim Bawb Pearce and Curtis Farley (the previous bass player).

“Tres, Rory and Perry had been playing together for a while and they needed a picker,” said Slim Bawb. “I played some slide mandolin and we meshed really quickly. It’s fun to play in this band. We have a lot of harmonies and you never know what’s gonna happen. There’s a lot of improvising going on.”

Slim Bawb moved to Cedar Creek from Sacramento five years ago. Before he became a transplanted Texan, he spent 20 years with a group called the Beer Dawgs, which was inducted into the Sacramento Area Music Hall of Fame in 1998.

Curtis, who owns Twisted Twig Studio, is still involved with the band on the production end. He came up with the name Chubby Knuckle Choir while poking fun at the musicians’ middle age spare tires and chubby hands. The musicians were having a jam session and singing harmonies. “Curtis was picking on us and said ‘y’all look like a chubby knuckle choir’ and the name stuck,” Rory said.

Rory and Perry chose their percussion instruments for two reasons: 1) their cars weren’t big enough to hold trap sets and 2) they provide rhythm without overwhelming the vocals.

Tres also liked the idea of using those instruments to make the band’s sound more unique, and offset his strong country influence. The frottoir was a nod to Slim Bawb’s Cajun influence.

“What makes it work is we all like each other,” Rory said.

The Chubby Knuckle Choir has had its share of local success, performing at South By Southwest in 2008, 2009 and 2010. They have also opened for Austin musician Guy Forsyth, former member of the Asylum Street Spankers at Nutty Brown Café outside of Dripping Springs.

Most of the time they perform at the Lumberyard in downtown Bastrop or in Quoffer’s in Elgin, but they also play in other venues around the state and are slated to play in Elgin’s Hogeye Festival next October.

They are not trying to become a national act — although they are open to possibilities if they somehow strike it big. “We’re all at that age where we have responsibilities,” Rory said. “Perry has a couple of toddlers. If we get a following that’s great, but  it’s not on the agenda. We just love what we do.”

The band is working on songs for the debut studio album, which should be finished by the end of the year. In the meantime, you can buy CDs of their 11-track album “Live at the Lumberyard” for $10. E-mail rolow86@yahoo.com.

The Chubby Knuckle Choir’s next show is at the Lumberyard is 8 p.m. Friday, June 10. The band will perform at Quoffer’s at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 23.

This one may be my favorite:


These are quite impressive as well:


It’s Always Something

The Live Experience

I caught the tail end of one of their shows at Quoffer’s bar in Elgin and went to see them again a few weeks ago in Bastrop in a really cool venue called the Lumberyard (it actually used to BE a lumberyard).

The audience was a mix of old and young who from time to time got up and danced. The band obviously a small but dedicated following (that recently grew by one).

Their set list featured some great original songs, along with some inspired covers. “Freakshow,” “It’s Always Something” “Farmer’s Tan” and “Ethylene” were among my favorite originals.

They did excellent covers of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” the gospel standard “Jesus on the Mainline” and Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.” Venue owner Jeff Brister joined the band on trumpet during “Ya Ya.”

Another highlight was Storytelling, a band tradition. Band members take turns telling stories from one concert to the next. The stories are supposed to be true. Rory told one about raccoons taking up residence in his attic.

Every story ends with “and I heard a song on the radio,” followed by a cover song. The one that night was AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Never expected to hear a bluegrass version of that, but it really worked.

Very entertaining live show. I’ve been looking for a band to fill the empty place in my soul left by the breakup of the Asylum Street Spankers and I may have finally found it – right in my back yard.

Check out The Chubby Knuckle Choir Reverbnation page for announcements of upcoming shows.

And here’s a sample of their live performance:



Filed under alt-country, blues, country, folk, indie, interview, live show, one to watch, r&b, review, roots, Uncategorized, world music

When good music was truly a treasure – music discovery before the age of the Internet

A few years ago, I dumped a bunch of old cassette tapes in a box, carried them to the Goodwill thrift store and said, “Take what you want and throw the rest away.” The box contained a jumble of commercial cassettes and homemade mixtapes. I spent hours making some of those mixes from LP records and CDs, so I could listen to them on the road or give them away to other music lovers. Others were given to me by a friend. They just weren’t important anymore and I needed the closet space.

Now I kinda wish I had hung onto some of those mixtapes, even though I only have one beat up little jam box to play them on. They were a link to the past. A past that not everyone shared.

I realized that yesterday when I saw a question in the forums on RateYourMusic, a site that’s been my home on the web since 2002: How did music lovers find and treasure those obscure gems before the Golden Age of the Internet? The question surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. A lot of young music lovers are coming of age who have never known a time without personal computers and the Internet.

Now, so much great music is at your fingertips if you can just figure out where to look. It’s more of a case of looking for a needle in a haystack. When I was in my teens and 20s, seeking out obscure musical gems was more like an old-fashioned treasure hunt.

First a bit of context. I was born in Texas in 1965 and grew up in a small town where most easily accessible music was Top 40 pop, country music and Spanish-language conjunto (I avoided the last two categories until relatively recently). I really came of age as a music lover in the late ’70s. Disco and mellow pop dominated the AM band in my neck of the woods and hard rock was a tasty forbidden fruit you wanted but mostly couldn’t have. We heard a bit of new wave, but punk was completely unknown. I wasn’t satisfied and was constantly on the hunt for great new music.

Here’s how I went about it:


Just like today, radio was a frustrating medium. Playlists were determined by money, not art – or even coolness. It just got worse and worse as time went on, especially when the automated playlist arrived, sometime in the ’80s. But it wasn’t useless. Late at night, I would lie in bed, with my ear glued to the radio, constantly tuning and searching. Sometimes, if the ionosphere was in a giving mood, I could listen to 99.5 KISS, a pioneering hard rock station from San Antonio that broke a lot of bands that later became big names – like Rush and Triumph. I heard AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (I thought it was “Dirty Deeds and the Thunder Chief”) on that station before it was officially released in the U.S. There were also a couple of great hard rock stations that fought one another for a little slice of the airwaves – KNCN “C-101” at 101.3 FM from Sinton-Taft (near Corpus Christi) and KLOL 101.1 FM out of Houston. I first heard “Whip It” by Devo from one of those stations. Not sure which.

Other people’s record collections

I have a relative who really lived it up in the ’70s. His official class motto was “Learn as if you’ll live forever,” but he claimed the real motto was “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” He has since turned into a civilized family man, but over that period of unbridled fun, he put together one whopper of a record collection. It featured lots of great music from the hippie era that evolved into what became known as hard rock and later on, metal. As a teenager I loved to dig through it. Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Wet Willie, Rare Earth, Vanilla Fudge, The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad… I never knew what I might find, but I always knew it would kick ass and it never let me down.  I went through a similar stage of music discovery with my dad’s extensive collection of classical music.

Music stores

There were no music stores in my town of 2,000. Medium-sized Victoria had Musicland and Hastings, which were mediocre and overpriced. I still pored through what they had. Any time I had a chance to shop for music in any real city like San Antonio, I took advantage of it. I used to buy 8-track tapes on band trips using the money Mom had given me for food. Later on in the CD era, the music stores still sucked, but began to have displays full of cut-outs, something you never see anymore. They would drill holes or cut little grooves in the cases of CDs they couldn’t get rid of and sell them at big discounts. I bought those at random and sometimes discovered great music. When I moved into the Austin area and got access to Waterloo Records and Cheapo Disks, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Friends & classmates

Back in the olden days, we used to have flesh-and-blood friends. No texting or e-mailing or instant messaging. No place to upload or download anything. You shared music in person. It was a social experience, and a great way to discover new music. When you heard something awesome coming out of someone’s speakers, you found out what it was. When you found something awesome, you invited your friends to come over and listen. You might loan an album or tape out and let them play it for a while and tape it. Or, to make sure they didn’t lose it or damage it, you’d tape it for them.

On special occasions, we might get to take music to school and play it. When I was a freshman in high school, some kid got permission to play Boston’s debut album over the PA. That totally blew me away. I first heard Van Halen from a portable 8-track player during a Boy Scout campout, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Cheap Trick’s Dream Police I discovered on the band bus and I discovered the Cars’ first album while hanging round in the band hall.


For a few years in the ’90s, I got stuck in a little backwater about a half an hour from Waco. Waco was a medium-sized city with bad radio and not much of a record store (Hastings, yippee). I got tired of driving into Waco looking for tunes and coming back empty-handed, so I started ordering from a catalog. There were little descriptions and if you liked something, you put a check in an envelope and sent it off. I really looked forward to those packages in the mail. I ordered some good reggae that way and got a wonderful compilation of hits from blues singer Big Maybelle Smith.


The mixtape is a lost art. Music lovers spent a lot of time making them for years, from the vinyl LP era right into the CD era. I made them for myself, so I could play favorite songs on the road or in the Walkman, while walking or mowing the lawn. Or I made them specifically with others in mind. I could go with a theme and title it — for example, “Long Hard ’70s” featuring songs over 6 minutes long from groups like Zeppelin or Trapeze; or I could just be as random as possible. I liked to make mixes where every song was a surprise – reggae followed by grunge, followed by classical music, followed by blues, etc. It was a personal thing. The person I gave it to knew that I was either trying to give them just what I thought they would like, or give them a little slice of my own taste in music, or a bit of both.

We fretted over which brand to buy – Maxell, Memorex, TDK. You had to get something that held at least 90 minutes, so you could get two full albums onto it (maybe). If you cheaped out too much, you could really tell — you’d get a lot of hiss. The 100-minute cassette seemed like a huge innovation at the time. You could get one album on each side without worrying about cutting a song off if it ran a bit longer than the standard.

I hit the jackpot in the ’90s when a friend who had worked at a college radio station gave me a bunch of his old mix tapes. He turned me onto postupink, which was a whole new branch of rock ‘n’ roll for me at the time. That’s how I found The Chameleons, Ultravox, Shriekback, Tones on Tail, Killing Joke, Inspiral Carpets, House of Love, Levitation and lots of others. He usually wrote the name of the song, not the group, so I still had a lot of hunting and discovering to do, trying to track everything down on CD.

We don’t really get to do that anymore. Now that you can burn a jillion songs on a CD-R, DVD or  load them onto a portable player, there’s not much room for personalization. No thought about what song should follow another, no room for a theme.

The Internet was a godsend for people like me. There are now so many ways to discover and share music, so many ways to avoid commercial radio and find the good stuff. I wouldn’t want to go back to the way it was. But there’s also a downside. When you don’t have to try as hard to get new music, it doesn’t mean as much to you. It’s more disposable, easier to take for granted. Every song, even one you like, is just one file among thousands on your hard drive. If you lost it, you could probably download it again within minutes.

I’d like to get some comments on this from other music lovers old enough to remember a time before the Internet. Also, if you get a chance, pay a visit to the thread in RateYourMusic that inspired this post: “I have a question to music lovers who have been treasuring music before the Golden Age of Internet!” It’s already got some interesting posts.


Filed under commentary, Uncategorized