Were not dead yet
Would the late, greatly sized Country Dick Montana support his Beat Farmers playing a 20-year reunion show without him?
"I absolutely think he would approve," says the San Diego-based cowpunk kings' guitarist/songwriter Buddy Blue, who is known otherwise to Weeklyreaders as music scribe Buddy Seigal. "He's probably smiling down on us in hell over the whole thing."
What some playfully refer to as "the Dickless Farmers" perform Saturday at the Coach House. Country Dick, who was born Dan McLain, is unfortunately otherwise detained. He'd just come out on the winning end of a long battle with thyroid cancer when he died of a heart attack in 1995 while onstage at the Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, British Columbia. He was 40.
Bigger than life—no, really, someone measured—Country Dick was the drummer in a hugely popular San Diego punk band called the Penetrators in the early 1980s when he formed a side project called Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies. That outfit allowed Country Dick, ever the ham, to come out from behind his drum kit and crack jokes, unleash a rumbling bass that seemed drawn from a deep well, and even cry in his longneck.
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Jerry Raney, by then a 15-year veteran rocker in San Diego, caught the Snuggle Bunnies one night and approached his former bandmate. "I told Dick, 'Hey, what you're doing has a better chance of making it than anything anyone else is doing in town. Keep it up,'" Raney recalls. "He called a couple of weeks later and said, 'Hey, Raney, want to start this mobile musical pleasure unit?'"
Their first move was to check out a young guitarist named Buddy Blue who fronted a band called the Rockin' Roulettes.
"Buddy was playing this stuff that seemed like authentic, early American rockabilly," Raney said. "His songs really sounded right, like they were from somebody who came out of the '50s."
Country Dick told Blue before the show that the manager for a hot Orange County rockabilly band called the Rockin' Rebels would be checking out the Roulettes to potentially sign them as clients. "I told the other Roulettes this, we did our gig, and when it was over Dan comes up to me and says that he lied," Blue remembered. "He had Jerry Raney there checking us out, and he wanted me to join a band with them. I had to go back to the Roulettes and admit what happened. But I jumped at the chance. Those two were higher in the local-scene pecking order than I was."
After coming up empty trying out bass players, Blue suggested his Roulettes' mate Rolle Love, who'd only been playing the standup about a year but seemed to be a quick learner.
There was one drawback.
"Rolle was underage," Raney said. "He had to run out of a lot of back doors when the cops showed up."
The cops showed up often; Country Dick and Raney were already so widely known in San Diego that the first Beat Farmers gigs in 1983 were huge events. One early show, booked only after a few rehearsals, was at a tiny dive bar called the Spring Valley Inn. Blue, who remembers the audience spilling out into the street, held onto a recording that is being released for the first time on CD and will be sold for $15 at the Coach House.
While the Beat Farmers were formed with country music in mind—otherwise Country Dick would have looked silly in his battered cowboy hat and threadbare overcoat—Raney and Blue maintain that each member brought a little something to the musical table. Blue was steeped in rockabilly and blues. Raney was early rock & roll through the Clapton-is-God era. Country Dick's name explains his thang. And Love just tried to keep up.
"It all kind of collided," Blue said.
The Beat Farmers quickly found themselves opening for such like-minded, rootsy LA bands as the Blasters, Rank and File and Los Lobos. "None of us really sounded alike at all, but we shared the same sort of idealistic notion that we could help bring back rock & roll, which at that time was in the grips of goofy new wave, synth pop, shit like that," Blue said.
A wag dubbed the country punk sound "cowpunk." Raney recalls others who took it further. "Yeah, like we were at the crest of the moo wave," he says with a laugh. "Reckless western. Hayseed boogie-woogie. Stool-pigeon bop." But there are critics today who credit cowpunksters like the Beat Farmers with being the forebears of today's alt-country music.
The Beat Farmers, which released eight albums between 1985 and 1995, certainly evoked early rock & roll, but a raw punk energy simmered in this roots-rock stew. Many songs started with "Train Kept A-Rollin'"-style snare drums before Raney belted out vocals that brought to mind "Jailhouse Rock"-era Elvis. Blue, whose guitar often sounded as if it'd been plucked from Bill Haley's Comets, sang more bluesy numbers with surprising confidence given his relative youth—he was in his mid 20s. For comic relief, Country Dick would occasionally grab the mic. If the booming vocals of Rank and File's Tony Kinman led listeners to believe he was lugging bowling ball-sized testes, then Country Dick had to be packing medicine balls between his legs. Critics at the time generally split on whether his wild stage antics detracted from truly fine music or are what made the Beat Farmers stand out.
Recognizing that cowpunk would eventually come and go as quickly as any other fad of the day, like rockabilly, the Beat Farmers eventually grew into a more mainstream rock sound. That's about the time Blue split to form his own roots-rock band. Other members came and went over the years, and after his bouts with bad health, Country Dick had only returned to performing with the final incarnation of the Beat Farmers a year before his death.
This reunion came about when the Buddy Blue Band and Raney's Powerthud (which includes Blue's Beat Farmers' replacement, Joey Harris, on guitar; Blue and Raney also have a side band called the Flying Putos; please keep up) shared the bill for a New Year's Eve 2000 gig in San Diego. The promoter marketed the show as a "Beat Farmers jam," even though it wasn't. But it planted the seeds for formal Beat Farmers shows to mark special occasions, such as last year's Coach House gig to mark the seventh anniversary of Country Dick's death. Joel Kmak, who used to bang the drums for the Farmers when his best friend Country Dick was too ill to play, gets behind the kit for the reunions.
"In terms of the whole showmanship thing Dick did, we just don't even try doing it," Raney said. "The novelty part of the show is what Dick did, but there is so much material to choose from, we could probably do a four-hour set."
"A lot of people think it's fucked up that we're playing without Country Dick," Blue offered. "Dan's dead. What are you going to do? Obviously, he was a huge part of what we did, but there are still four Beat Farmers. Most of the material was written and sung by me, Jerry and Joey. We can't do what Country Dick did, and he couldn't do what we did. We miss him, sure, but it's sort of like the rest of us are not dead yet. We enjoy playing together."
The Beat Farmers 20th Reunion at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sat., 8 p.m. $15.
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