By Alex Distefano
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Photo by Steve MeyedaIt's Sunday night at 2J's, one of Fullerton's oldest, smokiest bars. A crazy mosaic of patrons appears as if shot through silk. Actors unwinding after a show, vatos just out of jail—they chase eight-balls around pool tables, shoot the shit in oversized booths around a faux fire and watch Meredith pour just about the stiffest drinks in town. At the far end of the bar, in a dark corner, there's a guy strumming an amplified acoustic guitar and another dude accompanying him on an electric. It's simple music—understated, laid-back and good-natured, but with more than a strain of plaintive world-weariness beneath the words and between the chords.
In another century, it could be Gram Parsons, that patron saint of lost and grievous cowboy angels, and favored guitarist James Burton getting their licks in up there. But in the 21st, it's Dave Clucas and J.D. Bogan, half of the Horsepainters, a band that sticks out of the Orange County musical landscape like a Stetson atop a really big, sore thumb.
They're country rock—not western swing, not new country, not old country, not rockabilly. But country rock. The kind of stuff Keith Richards was toying with on the holy triumvirate of Stones albums: Let It Bleed, Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers. The stuff Jerry Garcia introduced to the freaks with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. The music that Parsons brought into the mainstream on the Byrds' landmark album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
This is not to imply that Clucas and bandmates Bogan, bassist John Ramey and drummer Corey Gash are stuck in 1971 and making monthly pilgrimages to Joshua Tree to commune with Parsons' ashes. There's plenty of other stuff that infuses the Horsepainters' music, from power pop and the Replacements to Uncle Tupelo and its musical offspring Wilco and Son Volt.
But this is music you don't hear too often, at least locally. It's singer/songwriter-based, not overly concerned with making a big visual or aural impression. Just simple guys who happen to be excellent musicians, playing simple tunes—and trying to make lots of money, get really famous and pick up lots of trim on the side. (Actually, Clucas is the only one not married in the band. And he's saving it for marriage.)
The name? "It comes from Cormac McCarthy's novel The Crossing," Clucas says. "He was talking about these gypsies that roam around Mexico who paint their horses these garish colors. Nobody knows where they're from. They're not Spanish, Mexican, European or indigenous. I just thought it was a very cool word from one of my favorite authors."
Where they're from is something that a lot of people who see the Horsepainters may wonder about. Orange County bands don't play music like this. It's not fast enough. It's not loud enough. It's not swingy enough, rockabilly enough or punk enough. It's music driven by an artist's sensibilities—emotional, poignant, kind of whiny sometimes, but always heartfelt and real, drawing on those broad themes that the greatest literature (and most powerful personal experiences) are drawn from: broken hearts, road trips, the desert, the mountains, drivin' 'n' cryin', drinkin' 'n' sinkin'. But always with that hope of renewal or rebirth, usually stemming from that perverse belief that the redemptive spirit of rock & roll—or the promise of the open road, or a bottle of whiskey, or really good sex—will lead you to the promised land.
The Horsepainters are a team project, but Clucas is obviously the ringleader. He writes and sings the songs, and looked for several years for musicians who could bring his music to life. The band is one song from finishing its first independently produced record.
Clucas remembers three unrelated voices in his home while growing up: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and John Denver. But he was into all the music any kid raised in the 1980s and '90s would be. His first concert was U2. He had a punk phase. But around age 13 he picked up a guitar, and around 20 decided the kind of music he'd commit himself to for at least the next eight years was country rock.
A lot of that obviously has to do with what he was weaned on. And the element of self-deprecation and inherent humility in country rock, the wistful melancholy of the genre backed by that rock beat, might say something about a guy who, while growing up, never felt "cool enough." But there's also something about country rock that is all about the land.
Clucas is SoCal born and bred, and he likes to think this place is somehow linked to the music he's most passionate about. "I grew up in Upland. I like to call it the throne room of the Inland Empire," Clucas says. "It's the only city in the 909 that isn't a complete shithole. It's set up against Mount Baldy and it overlooks so many different things. To the east you've got the desert, straight down south or west is the ocean, you're surrounded by the city. It's a perfect place to experience all kinds of different things, and a lot of my songs, like 'I'll Drive,' are born directly out of that experience. I was sitting around with a group of people and we were talking about what to do, and I said I'd drive to the desert and they looked at me like I was crazy. To them, the only thing realistic was to go to Birch Street [in Brea] and see a movie.