"There's lots of ups and downs in the music business, and about the time you get a good sound going, your personnel changes." So says bandleader and sole proprietor ("I've got a D.B.A license - doing business as") Karl Shiflett of Big Country Show.
Right on the heels of his third and best CD for Rebel Records, "Worries On My Mind," the nucleus of his crackerjack acoustic country band - including banjo-picking chief songwriter Jake Jenkins - have departed.
Speaking from his booking agent's home in Columbia, Tenn., Shiflett says the parting was not bitter. "No, no. Not at all. (Jenkins) got married a couple of years ago, and then he had a child. Just this last year, he had another child."
"We've been out there 10 years, but still it's a struggle. In order to make enough money to support a family, you have to be gone all the time. We tried balancing it out where we could be out two or three days a week and be home two or three days. That didn't work. We tried everything that we could imagine, but it was inevitable that it would all catch up with us. (Mandolinist) Randy Lindley was the same way. He has three young children, so he had to leave too. So Randy left, Jake left, and (fiddle player) Chuck Westerman left."
Ironically, they jumped ship just as the band began to find favor with some Americana radio programmers.
"We've picked up 10 new Americana stations in the last couple of weeks," reports a hopeful Shiflett. "That was one of our goals with this new CD. We had our special guest Jim Lauderdale - of course he's hot in the Americana market. I consulted with a friend of mine up in New Jersey named Fred Boenig. He has Americana Media Productions, and that's what he does is push records onto the Americana stations. I don't know what the difference would be (with the new album) other than we have a special guest that's big in that market already."
It has taken the band 10 years to even glimpse the opportunity for that type of niche market success. As Shiflett talks of the band's origins, one senses that he'd like the founding members along for the ride.
"Randy Lindley, who is on this CD, he and I were sidemen working with the Sullivan Family - an all bluegrass gospel group out of Alabama. We'd been with them for a couple of years and decided to come back home to Texas and put something together. It was actually Randy's idea, he said, 'We ought to do that. It's time you stepped out on your own.' I said, 'Well, I don't know. But I guess we could do just as well with that as we are now as sidemen. So, let's try it.'"
"So, we were looking for a banjo picker, and I called Jake. So it was me, Randy and Jake originally. We went through a couple of bass players and finally found another guy who was a cousin of Jake's - his name was Macy Graham, and he lived over in the same part of the country that Jake was from. So, that was the original group. Just the four of us with guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass. It was all Texas-based people originally, and we worked two or three years like that. Randy left (he later returned), and then Macy went from bass to the mandolin. Then my son Kris came in on the bass.
"Up until we did our first Rebel project (a self-titled 1999 album), we were still all from Texas, and we had recorded for Atteiram Records. That was a small label out of Georgia. It was Marietta spelled backwards."
Boasting crowd-pleasing showmanship, a '40s sartorial workingman's flair and impressive acoustic technique, Shiflett and Big Country earned a loyal fan base in and around Texas. In the process, fiery banjo-plucker Jenkins transformed into a first-rate songsmith.
"Well, when we first started, we were just doing the standard tunes that everybody does and searching for material. So, I wrote a few songs early in our career, and Jake just started writing songs one day, and we started bringing them into the band. The more he wrote, the more he liked writing so it just evolved into a passion for him. He wrote a lot of songs that we didn't use. He wrote really well in the country and honky tonk vein."
Jenkins' songs provide the bulk of original material included on Big Country Show's discs , and he's a major contributor to "Worries On My Mind." Even more important, the group's instrumental attack is at its ferocious peak, thanks in no small part to Jenkins' rapid-fire Earl Scruggs-type instrumental rides.
When told the band plays their acoustic lead breaks with rock 'n' roll intensity, Shiflett laughed appreciatively before adding, "Well, that just evolved naturally from working together on one microphone. Being limited on microphones means you have to work harder. Yeah, that's something we done on purpose. We pride ourselves on being aggressive with it. There's so many elements of different types of music in what we're doing. The banjo break on 'Bobo's Boogie,' if you listen to it, it sounds like Chuck Berry playing something on the guitar. Some of the stuff that Andy Ruf was doing on the Dobro, a lot of that string-bending work, that's all steel guitar sounding work."
Did they have a particular theme in mind for this album?
"We wanted to try something different," states Shiflett. "Our sound has kind of evolved into where we're more of a country band playing bluegrass instruments. We wanted to do country, honky-tonk and bluegrass all combined album. Trying to appeal to as many people as we could that liked those different kinds of music."
Outsiders may find it hard to believe, but mixing honky-tonk with bluegrass is a somewhat controversial in purist circles. So is the band's subtle use of a snare and kick drum, which supplements the percussive slap of the upright bass.
"Sonny Osborne (of the legendary Osborne Brothers), who wrote the liner notes of our new album, and I were talking," says Shiflett. "It was after the fact, and I told him that we were no longer using the snare because of personnel changes. So he said, 'Well, I'm glad you're not.' I said 'Why?' 'Because you didn't need it to start with.'"
One thing Shiflett felt they did need was radio exposure, and he hopes guest star Lauderdale can help generate some with his recording of Jenkins' "How Wrong A Man Can Be."
"Actually, we weren't there at the same time," says Shiflett of the recording process. "When we cross paths with him, Jim always says what a big fan he is of our music. Of course, we're fans of his music as well - he's a great songwriter. So, I just called him up and said, 'We've got a song that we wrote, and we feel like it would really fit you, and we'd like for you to do it on our album.' Then, we went in and got the song just like we would have done if he hadn't been there. I had done the lead vocals originally. He came in, listened to the way I had done it, then put his style to it."
Although Shiflett feels the business end of things is not a natural fit for him, he is encouraged by bluegrass music's recent popularity spurt.
"I think bluegrass music is probably bigger now than it ever has been. A lot of it has to do with the exposure it's getting. The 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?' movie, Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, people like that. I thought Ricky Skaggs was very wise. When he was doing his country thing he always included one or two bluegrass numbers. So, when he went back to bluegrass, he automatically had that same fan base. There's a lot of people in bluegrass that don't agree with that, but I think that's what helped with the growth of bluegrass - the exposure through people like Skaggs and Dolly Parton."
"So, even where we're at, it's helped boost our pay and helped increase our dates. It's just an ongoing process. We're making more money than we ever have per show."
Despite this upturn in fortunes, Jenkins left to attend a firefighter academy, and founding member Lindley seems content to work in an insurance office. "It's just hard for a married person to commit himself to being gone that much," reasons Shiflett. "I'm not saying it can't be done. It takes a lot of work and a lot of trust and discipline. Everybody's single in the band now, so now it's pretty good."
Indeed, with album release concerts on the horizon, the bandleader broke his solidarity with Texas musicians and enlisted the aid of some rather formidable Kentucky talent.
"Wes Vanderpool is playing the banjo," says Shiflett. "He's been wanting that job for a long time, and that's who Jake wanted to have it if he ever left. Wes was formerly with the Wildwood Valley Boys. Shane Bartley is playing the mandolin. His last group was David Petersen and 1946. Before that he was with Rarely Heard, and he spent some time with Lost & Found. He's been around the block a few times. The fiddle player is named Matt Arnold, and he was formerly with David Petersen and 1946."
When asked how the new line-up is working out, Shiflett sounds positive. "Good, good. My son is still with me, and Andy Ruf the Dobro player is still with me. So, with banjo, mandolin and fiddle, we've got three new additions. It takes a while to get all the material worked up. We're doing some album release concerts here, and we really don't know all the material, like what's on the CD - not as well as Jake, Randy and Chuck knew it. It's a little difficult to pull some of that off at the present time, but hopefully as we work into it, we'll get better."
Yet, the band still does Jenkins' material, and Shiflett seems to be leaving the door open for his return. "I've culled a lot of the songs he wrote and was holding them back for later albums," admits the group's head honcho. "There's enough material that he's wrote for another 10 albums."
Whether the new line-up works out or Lauderdale's contribution gives them a radio foothold or not, Shiflett is resolute about keeping the show on the road.
"We're still at it and hopefully here to stay for a while. I'm into it more as a career than I am for the big lights and the awards and all that. Our music should speak louder than words. So, when it affects you, touches your life and makes you smile or whatever, that's what it's all about."