he late '90s were nothing if not a renaissance of young hardcore country acts. Texas, as expected, was a hotbed of activity with the likes of The Derailers, Dale Watson and Roger Wallace. But the Midwest produced its share, as well, particularly Chicago's Robbie Fulks and Missouri's Domino Kings, who just released their third album, "The Back of Your Mind."
Like Fulks, the Domino Kings were longtime vets of the road by the time they got around to recording their debut, "Lonesome Stranger," in 1998.
But it was their second album, 2000's "Life and 20," that put the group on the country map. Produced by Lou Whitney, longtime leader of Midwest faves The Skeletons and The Morrels, the album was a classy blend of rockabilly and Bakersfield-influenced honky-tonk with lead vocals by the band's two songwriters, upright bassist Brian Capps and guitarist Stevie Newman.
Newman's parents had been big country fans, and Newman regularly heard the likes of Buck Owens and George Jones while growing up.
"When I was about 7 or 8, I traded a pool cue to a cousin of mine for a big box of 8-track tapes and was just in hog heaven," says Newman, 32. "My first musical collection was Bill Monroe, Charley Pride, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Merle HaggardÉand Kiss' 'Love Gun.'"
Picking up guitar a few years later, Newman was basically a musician-for-hire for the next several years.
"I'd been kind of a pseudo-session guy - kind of a hired guitar player - for years," continues Newman. "I hooked up with some guys in '93, who needed a guitar player for what I believe was a high school reunion. So, I hooked up with what were the original Domino Kings, played the show, and we went our separate ways for a few months. And then I decided to put a band together, so I called these guys up. We rehearsed once for about nine hours and played for about two years without ever having another rehearsal."
From the sound of Capps' description, the early Domino Kings was an altogether different-sounding band with Capps singing only a handful of songs.
"When I did maybe three songs," says Capps, 34. "Basically, it was kind of a guitar band. A lot of Texas shuffles, some Jimi Hendrix, bands like The Paladins and stuff like that."
The band split for about a year-and-a-half in the mid-'90s, reuniting with almost no rehearsal for a Star Search competition, which they won, as it turned out. Since the song they won with was more country in sound, they continued in that vein.
"As the Domino Kings progressed, we evolved into writing songs as a band," says Newman. "I'd been doing it sporadically for a while, but everybody had a little different influence. We had strong ties to a lot of the same music, but where (Brian) hit Johnny Cash, I was kind of more in line with Haggard and Jones. And that was just different enough to where we started getting noticed. We were playing rockabilly stuff all the time, which, to me, goes in the honky-tonk basket. 'Cause you hear that stuff in a honky-tonk."
Shortly after the release of their debut, the band signed with the local Slewfoot label and released the company's first album, 2000's "Life and 20."
According to Newman, "Dale Wiley, the president (of the label), started coming around to see the band and approached us about signing a record deal. We wanted a record deal, and we're glad we signed with them because at the time nobody else was calling. And now that I've gotten to know Dale and his wife, if it was a bad deal, I would have signed it. They're some of the best people. I've talked to all these names that are on other labels, and it doesn't seem like anybody's happy. But it seems like everybody on Slewfoot likes everybody else on Slewfoot. We go out and do these package tours, and everybody is carrying everybody else's amps and guitars."
The biggest change since "Life and 20" was Capps' sudden departure late last year. The band's bio is nothing if not upfront about the events behind the lineup change: a dilly of a barfight between Capps and Newman shortly before the band was scheduled to go into the studio to begin recording what would eventually become the band's new album.
"I don't even know what it was about now," says Capps. "I think I showed up late or something. I think the underlying thing that kind of surfaced later was, well, creative differences in the kinds of directions where everybody was going. And you can't really have two people with different ideas of how something should be. There was a pretty good balance for a while, and then it was time to move on."
Capps, for his part, believes that things worked out for the best in the end, though he sounds regretful that things ended the way they did.
"We'd been on the road for the past six or nine months when that happened. So, we'd gotten to be together a bunch, and that kind of wears on you after a while. We (rarely) had any arguments. I can think of two or three, and (the barfight) was one of them. It should have been an argument that just ended with a few words. But for some reason, that night it wasn't that way."