One Day of the Journey for a Rockin’ Redneck Rebel Soul

By Tammy Moore, Photos by Jonathan McPhail

It has been said that we don’t dream in color, but you have to wonder about a young Texas father that wakes from his dreams on a cold January morning in Austin, his mind spinning with the fine points of his life. He got in late last night from Nashville, Tennessee where he spends a lot of time these days writing songs and finalizing negotiations for the recording deal he has finally agreed to sign. It’s his turn to take 9-year-old Darian to school, and after that it’s off to the gym for a workout. He and his band have a gig tonight in Waco, Texas where they are expected to play in front of seven thousand people. He’ll meet the band and crew at the regular tour bus departure spot when they are scheduled to leave town at 1 p.m. But before that, he has to put in some time dealing with the lawsuit he has pending against a distribution company that made off with tens of thousands of his band’s hard earned money before the business folded.

He plays country music these days, but a writer and photographer from a local rock magazine want to do a story on his outlaw band. So he has invited them to accompany his posse on today’s road trip. The writer is an old friend from the days when they were both scenesters in the heavy metal community. He’s happy to have them along, but still, it is one more thing to think about…entertaining guests. He recently fired his guitar player, and he’s agreed to let a hopeful new kid ride along today, too, and join the band on stage for a couple of songs. He still has to teach the guy some guitar parts, but that can be done on the ride there. He knows from experience that, once the band arrives in Waco tonight, there will be a lot to do before his head will hit the pillow again. On top of all that, somebody has to clean that bus before it starts to spin towards the night’s destination, and it looks like that somebody is going to be him.

The First Cut Is the Deepest
Kevin Fowler’s dreams used to be exactly like those of many of kids that grow up in smallish Texas oil and cattle towns. The goal is simple: get out. It isn’t that there are never any good times. It is simply that people in towns like that have a tendency to get way too comfortable in their lives and routines. Before you know it, one day isn’t much different from the next, and for a soul that craves adventure, the question looms like a dark cloud overhead, “Is this all there is?” These are the kinds of towns where people dig in to “put down roots,” and Amarillo is no different. That same feeling of day-to-day redundancy can create a strange psychological security that encompasses those that live there for any length of time. Growing up in the Texas Panhandle surrounded by working ranches that still adhere to the work ethics and routines that came about when they were founded in the 1800s, can create admiration and fierce ties to the yellow soils you’re stomping on. And what is the background music that plays non-stop as a boy comes of age in this slow-moving world? It takes a lot of rednecks to support the thriving blue-collar industry of Amarillo, and rednecks love their country music.

As a teenager it seems natural to rebel against your surroundings and gravitate towards the stuff your parents’ nightmares are made of. Strap a guitar on an attractive young male and combine the rebel attitude with the ability to play the provocative strains of taboo rock and roll, and you possess one no-fail recipe for attracting the opposite sex. Getting girls can practically become a matter of sport for guys that grow up in places where there isn’t much else to do. But even that can get old.

Fowler was the adventurous type and was obsessed with his guitar. He let those two passions lead him to Los Angeles, California where he attended the Guitar Institute of Technology and mastered the instrument. After tasting life in the big city, he was looking for anywhere to go except Amarillo, and although his intent was just to pass through Austin, once he got here, he never left.

He found work at The Austin Chronicle, delivering papers by day, and at night he played guitar in rock bands like The Tribe and Rumbletrain. Those gigs led to a stint with The Dangerous Toys whose record went gold and whose videos became MTV staples. It was a great opportunity for the rocker with the mane of straight red hair that was practically down to his ankles. He paid attention and learned a lot about the music business then. But Fowler wasn’t born to be a side-man, and he noticed that many of the songs he was writing at the time weren’t exactly metal tunes. They rocked, for sure, but the underlying tone that was developing was more akin to Skynyrd than Slayer. Eventually he had to break away from the Toys and create an outlet for this sound that was emerging. He formed a band in 1995 called Thunderfoot that ultimately served as a transitional project. He was able to indulge both his hard rock showmanship skills and the southern rock tendencies he was leaning towards at the time. Standard fare at a Thunderfoot show was the sight of Fowler setting steel guitars on fire.

It was also the Thunderfoot project that brought him together with bass player, Clay Karch. With intentions of playing guitar here, Karch had moved to Austin from Colorado, and when a mutual friend introduced the two long hairs (Karch’s thick brunette mane remains at mid-thigh level to this day), Fowler was looking for a bass player that would be willing to travel. When asked if he could play bass, Karch lied and said yes. He got the gig anyway, and the two have been playing together ever since.
It was during these travels that Karch says it became a regular occurrence to have nothing but country artists blaring through the speakers as road trip entertainment. Soon, the music that was naturally flowing out of Fowler was pure country, and it was time for another new outlet, and a homecoming of sorts, the Kevin Fowler Band.

The Texas Music Revolution
It started out as a way to play the music in whatever joint that would have them and to drink a lot of beer. Steel guitarist Glenn Suchan was hired and they secured a Tuesday night residency at a Sixth Street rock club. They began to play their brand of honky-tonk country to unsuspecting patrons along with friends and fans they recruited through typical Austin grassroots promotions. His hair was still long then, and Fowler decided to record a CD to reflect his new sound. Daren Fleming, a newly transplanted buddy from Amarillo, happened to be a really good sound engineer, and together they laid the tracks for the first Fowler record, One for the Road, in Mi Casa studios (read: Fowler’s bedroom) on an 8-track recorder. Fowler expected a big backlash due to the extreme nature of his musical conversion, but the record garnered some rave reviews by country music devotees and forced people to give the cross-over artist a serious look.

The band took to the road in support of the record and began laying the foundation for a fan base that has grown exponentially over the past five years. Growing very comfortable in his country music skin, Fowler lost the long locks and started preparing to write another record. He had two hundred dollars as a budget to record the CD, and again he recruited Fleming to work with him on the project. In 2000, the Beer, Bait and Ammo record was released to a crowd who, at first, gave it a mediocre reception. They played the record’s title track at live shows without a particular reaction to it. That was discouraging to the band, who had set a goal to sell at least 900 copies of the new CD. As fate would have it, a DJ from a local, now-defunct radio station added the title track of the record to his play list, and soon the song was picked up by Austin’s KVET and put in rotation alongside the likes of Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks. Other reporting stations like Dallas’ KSCS, The Wolf, and WACO 100 followed suit, and the scheme of things began to change. The outlaw country-influenced song was a great contrast to the country pop that floods the airwaves today, and fans reacted accordingly. Within nine weeks, the record had sold over 9,000 copies and, at last count, had sold over 37,000 units without the help of label support at all. The attention landed him in the middle of the movement known as the New Texas Music Revolution that boasts artists like Cory Morrow, Pat Green, and Robert Earl Keen.

That was a good year, and it was also the year that brought drummer Ronn Dixon into the fold. Dixon had played with the likes of Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan and was a classmate of Nanci Griffith’s. After a one on one audition that consisted of two hours of Fowler playing various guitar parts and asking, “What would you play with this,” Dixon knew he had the gig when Fowler picked up the phone and told Karch, “grab your bass and get your ass over here.”

The success of Beer, Bait and Ammo allowed their third record, 2002’s High on the Hog, to be recorded at Willie Nelson’s Eternals Studios, and Nelson himself agreed to lay down some guitar and vocal tracks as a guest performer. The experience was exhilarating for the band and for Fleming who was asked again to engineer and co-produce. Last year, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas was released and helped trigger an endorsement deal with Dodge. The Dodge truck commercial that features Fowler’s “100% Texan,” coupled with an additional endorsement by Budweiser, has helped to boost sales even more for Fowler’s records and brought undreamed of exposure for the band.

To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required
In the Gospel according to Luke, the good Lord speaks to a thought worth examining when He says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” It is a line of thinking that is in direct correlation to the proverb of reaping what we sow. What may appear to be sheer luck, at least in terms of the music business, is probably, in truth, the result of a tremendous amount of hard work. When the bus pulled into the venue that Friday afternoon, the band first had to survey the surroundings of the dirt floored coliseum they would be performing in a few hours later. They check the lay out of the room and stage set up while merch man Billy Applegate scouts a location to set up shop. Headliner Johnny Lee’s band is already sound checking, so greetings must be made. Fleming, who now also acts as the band’s live sound engineer as well as their road manager, reminds Fowler that he has a radio promo spot at 5 p.m. that day. Equipment has to be unloaded. Though at this point, the band does it themselves. They are told there will only be a quick line check before the show, so Fowler and most of the group head back to the bus to start their interview with yours truly while new guitar strings are strung. The interview is interrupted by the announcement that the dinner that has been provided in the hospitality suite for all the night’s performers is ready and following that there will be a “meet and greet” that Fowler must attend to thank all the sponsors of that night’s show.

There is only a little over an hour before show time, and Fowler and the band return to the bus to find guests waiting. One is Gloria Locke, none other than the mother of Poodie Locke, who the band says is the oldest living roadie in music today (he is Nelson’s stage manager) and the only non-musician in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The lively Locke boards the bus sporting her walking cane and diamonds and tells Fowler to be a sweetheart and to “make Mama a drink.” Her drink of choice is “yella wine,” but since he is out of tequila, Fowler offers her whiskey or scotch. Scotch will do, she informs him, and he happily prepares her drink while at the same time visiting with friends, A.L. and Carolyn Lang, who are a such big fans of the band that they follow them all over Texas, making sure to see them at least twice, sometimes three times a month.

It’s about thirty minutes to show time now, and the visitors and some of the band head back to the venue. Fowler sits calmly on one of the couches, warming up his guitar with various licks. Photographer Jonathan McPhail wants to know if Fowler remembers anything from his days in rock and roll, and Fowler effortlessly bends the strings into the chorus of Dangerous Toys’ “Teasin’ Pleasin.’” It’s time to change for the show, so a pony-tailed Karch retreats to the back of the bus to change, and Fowler removes the KISS T-shirt he’s been sporting all day and replaces it with a shimmery blue western shirt adorned with embroidered red roses. He brushes his teeth and returns the black cowboy hat to his head as Karch comes through the door. The bassist’s Hard Rock Café leather jacket has been traded for a brown western shirt and a funky straw hat, complete with a striking rattlesnake hatband that sits on top of the hair, which is now loose, brushed and flowing in all its glory. Both men’s shirttails are out and hang comfortably over snug Levi’s jeans and cowboy boots. The effect of the finished transformations is, well…captivating.
It is finally time to head to the coliseum, and though they try to slip in quietly through a back door, they are recognized by fans and stopped for autographs and whatever chatter they have time to give. Brave girls are breaking through security for a chance to speak to Fowler. No one is rebuffed.

With fully stocked bars, the party atmosphere is in full swing, and the tension is building as the crowd waits for the band they have come to see. When the guys take the stage and are finally introduced, the crowd of thousands erupts in screams of welcome and satisfaction. Dixon counts off, and the first note sounds. Fowler greets the crowd with an impish grin as a smiling Karch shuffles backwards teasing the audience with old school country rhythms. Fiery fiddle player, Chris Whitten, adds an ambiance reminiscent of the days of the Grand Ole Opry when country entertainers were adorned with rhinestones and studded belts bigger than some Texas creeks. With their unconventional look that combines country with 70s arena rock band chic, they are the embodiment of a new breed of outlaw, and the crowd is going wild. These fans know this music, as evidenced when the band breaks into their signature anthem, “Beer, Bait and Ammo.” Thousands of voices can be heard singing along with the catchy refrain. This approach to pleasing the crowd falls in line with the Kevin Fowler philosophy which is, “Don’t bore us. Give us the chorus.” It is a concept he adopted from Dangerous Toys’ drummer Mark Geary. Fowler claims this band isn’t here to change the world. It exists only to provoke a good time.

Over an hour later, the performance ends, and the next phase of Fowler’s day, the “merch table phenomenon,” is about to get under way. After the show, Fowler quickly makes his way back to the booth where Applegate, who co-writes songs with Fowler, is already hard at work selling KF merchandise left and right. As he approaches the table, girls began to scream his name, and he picks up a pen and starts signing shirts, caps, koozies, panties, pictures, even arms and one prosthetic leg. Over the past five years Fowler has signed everything from babies to trucks. He poses for pictures, offers handshakes, and gives hugs to everyone that wants one. He won’t stop until not one person is left standing, and that process lasts well past the headliner’s show ending and the house lights being turned on. It happens at every show, and the only autograph he’s ever refused to sign was when he was asked to sign on a KKK membership card.
He keeps in mind that a great predecessor once made every one of his fans in the early days by doing this very thing…Willie Nelson practically invented the art of giving back to the people who put you where you are.

Upon returning to the bus after the show, he spots three adolescent boys with their parents trying to peek into the bus, so he invites them all on board along with Veronica Alejo-Waits, another fan that travels Texas, seeing the band as often as she can. She bonded with them the night they were all nearly killed in Fort Worth when a drunk driver drove through the wall of the club the band has just played. The three star-struck boys try to keep their cool as Kevin Fowler himself dispenses advice on girls. Finally, once everyone exits the bus, boots and hats come off, and the hair goes back in ponytails. Beers are popped open, but as the bus heads back towards Austin at around 2 a.m., they still can’t stop. They still have to finish this interview.

Why Nashville Blows and Jerry Jeff Walker Rocks
When an established Nashville manager took an interest in the band and started bringing the suits to see them, the labels’ reaction was usually, “That’s great, but…what if we do it like this?” Much like another Texas outlaw, Waylon Jennings, who was notorious for unleashing a string of profanity on record execs that tried to tell him how to do things, Fowler’s band is uncompromising in their quest to make their music their way.

He knows that Music City has unwittingly provided a new niche, that someone need only step into and fill, in their relentless onslaught of force-fed country pop that permeates the radio. It is not unlike the rock movement phenomenon that he and his compadres witnessed in the early 90s when the grunge movement eradicated all things glam. The band is of the belief that when labels control radio play lists, as they do everywhere in the country, with the exception of Texas, it is far too easy for these idol makers to use their resources to manufacture artists and roll them through the “Nashville Machine.”

It goes something like this. Take this pretty girl or that good-looking guy, create an image, insist the new “artist” record songs written by songwriters of the label’s choice, ones who are paid to write hits, of course, and then force radio stations to play those songs day in and day out. Easy enough, and then the labels sit back and rake in the dough. The seemingly successful Nashville artist with the gold record and a leased tour bus (unlike Fowler’s band who own theirs), might still be borrowing money to eat at Burger King, since they won’t see a penny of a return until all the money that has been invested in them has been recouped. And the masses will follow for only so long, and then they get bored and start looking for something new anyway. Like these savvy outlaws point out, if an artist’s fans are created for them by their label, then when that label says the artist is done, he or she is just that…finished.

Already poised for the next level of fame by way of the redneck hard work ethic they apply to everything that they do, the band has been saying no to label offers for the past year or two. Recently though, Clint Black and his new Equity Records came knocking and said the magic words – “100% artistic control.” Black himself was given the cold shoulder upon his arrival in Nashville years ago when he wanted to write and perform his own songs. He’s a man that understands what it means to have to break down barriers, and his experiences have made him empathetic to the plight of the artist. Black can also provide the muscle new artists need to put them over the top.

Ask if they fear trying to break out of Texas and win the rest of the country music audience, and one is met with a unified resounding, “Hell no!” Knowing that even if they failed in other markets, they could continue to thrive in Texas for many years to come with the fan base they have built through unrelenting touring, Fowler says, “There’s nothing wrong with being a fuckin’ Jerry Jeff Walker. He’s knocked down a couple hundred grand every year for the last twenty years. I’d rather be the Grateful Dead of country than be the Shania Twain.”

However, always looking ahead, the same business savoir-faire that makes Fowler understand the parallels of rock and new country alternative movements makes him fully realize the value of getting cozy with the established writing and publishing crowd in Nashville. Admittedly, these road warriors don’t want to still be touring this hard by the time they are fifty. Many sacrifices are made now, time away from loved ones, in the pursuit of this dream. So selling songs to artists like Sammy Kershaw, who included “Beer, Bait and Ammo” as a track on his record, and Mark Chesnutt, who included “The Lord Loves the Drinkin’ Man” on his, can only help accomplish that goal.

Dreamin’ of a Honky-Tonk Daddy
Fowler is fond of saying that writing country music is no different than writing rock music, “It’s the same three chords.” This band of renegades has found that the songs in both genres are about drinking, sex and hanging out in bars, and the rebellion it inspires is pretty much the same. In the end, it seems it just isn’t that far of a stretch, and these freebirds have wisely applied the lessons they have learned in the rock and roll world and parlayed them into a formula for success in country music world.

The bus finally rolls to its resting place and people begin moving in different directions. It’s 4 a.m. now, and they all know that in just a few hours they’ll be leaving again for tonight’s show in San Antonio. A steel guitarist lies sleeping in his bunk as a fiddle player and a drummer begin to pack up their belongings. A singer tells a starry-eyed guitar player that the band will be in touch. After one too many whiskeys, a photographer lays passed out in a heap on one of the comfy black leather couches. A worn-out merch man keeps his seat at the diner-style booth he’s already very comfortable in, and a bus driver, who has seen it all before, waits patiently for the rebel crew to get on their way. A road manager is ready to get home to his wife as a bass player bolts off the bus, anxious to spend time with a gorgeous baby girl named Keaton and her mother. And there is Kevin Fowler. The blue eyes are weary from the days’ activities, and yet the mind is still spinning. He can’t help it. There is still so much work to be done. He is visibly torn between going home and stealing the blessed extra minutes of sleep he could get if he just crawled into his bunk on the bus. A few miles away though, in a house outside of town, two more babies lay sleeping and waiting…no doubt dreamin’ of a honky-tonk daddy who dreams in shades of neon lights.

– Tammy Moore


Copyright 2004 rank and revue All rights reserved.
designed by
groovee fortune