He's 46 - well past living the life of your typical traveling musician, complete with vans, hotels, late nights, and lots of driving. But Ray Condo isn't your typical anything. So he's able to fit in quite nicely - lead the pack, actually - when the usually independent rockabilly world unites at festivals, such as last month's Viva Las Vegas. "They're pretty special," he said of VLV and its kin. "It's a 'meeting of the tribes' where the culture comes together once or twice a year."
Amongst those tribes, Condo certainly rates as chief - or at least elder medicine man. The potions he mixes are old recipes - first blended in the 1930s at dance halls between Tulsa and Austin. It's a concoction known as western swing - a blend of instrumentation and rhythm uniting the Kansas City swing of the era and early electrified country, complete with singing pedal steel guitars. "The draw of western swing is that it has so many modern elements - like speeded-up guitar and a tough rhythm section. These were the elements that formed early rockabilly and rock & roll." Through the 1940s, artists such as Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys and the Light Crust Doughboys sent many boot heels tapping. "By the late '40s, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell stripped the music into smaller combos - they were the Louis Jordans of the western scene. They put an end to those bands."
Condo 's own history reflects the variety of his music interests. Raised in the Ottawa, Ontario area, he credits his mother's record collection ("Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves") and the Grand Ol' Opry radio broadcasts for country influences. But he also witnessed Elvis' milestone performances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Another rockabilly pioneer also exacted influence in his region. "Ronnie Hawkins was very popular in Southern Ontario when he moved there in the late '50s and early '60s," Condo said. Hawkins ' backing group, the Hawks, later evolved into rock legends The Band.
But while those influences were present, there was also a distance from the more cluttered music scene in the States. That isolation helped fuel a sense of individuality, Condo said. "I was listening to the Starliners in Las Vegas - they're a group from Australia - and they just blew me away. Australia is a lot like Canada - where you can be isolated in a big land. It's hard to make a go of it unless you're strong. I think we're a strong band - that we've been a little more on our own to develop our style."
Condo's Vancouver-based Ricochets are an esteemed mix of Canadian and British musicians, each of whom brings varied experience and passion to the group. "Jimmy Roy is a steel wizard - he's been playing country even longer than I have. (Guitarist) Stephen Nikleva is our maestro, and has a jazz background. (Bassist) Pete Turland came from a rock & roll and blues background, as did Steve Taylor - in his teens he worked as a drummer in strip joints, so he brings that greasy club thing. And I've got that Ottawa Valley Celtic twang," he quipped.
The mix of interests keeps the group from getting too locked in on any style, and hearkens back to another key element of the western swing era. "Those bands would play music that ranged from (pre-) rockabilly to Broadway show tunes to jazz and novelty tunes. The music was a great, varied hybrid." That's a spirit Condo keeps in his approach. "I don't see much separation between the genres until today's post-post modern stuff," he said. So there's little surprise that his new disc on the Joaquin label, High & Wild, covers ground from Lester Young and Buddy Johnson to Cole Porter and even (gasp!) a completely transformed cover of the Connie Francis hit, "Many Tears Ago." "The advantage to these old tunes is that they're time-tested," he said. "You can still get a lot more mileage out of 'em."
With his jumped-up country arrangements drawing increasing audiences, Condo agrees the Nashville cabal has begun to pay attention, if not respect, to artists (and their audences) that revel in historic country. But will those fans be enough to finally storm the Bastille of corporate country? "I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude," he laconically answered. "There's an international fan base there, and we're a growing phenomenon on the circuit. It's getting better."
But Condo is in no rush to see corporate influence transform the retro-country scene. "We're the last of the rootsy scenes," he lamented. "We still have the most authentic music scene - as well as economic and political scenes - in our group. We don't have college radio that's been adopted by corporate interests. We don't have the Green Days and Pearl Jams on the charts - and all that other crap with it. We don't have the 'commercial angst' of hip-hop. We're still fuckin' rock & roll, man." Condo is heartened by the camaraderie amongst the retro country scene's elements. "There's less bullshit - no hype - and it's not as competitive. But I'm curious as hell thinking how one of these days some young band with talent and personality will come along and get discovered. Then there will be a few others like them. And all the cool things will just disappear. So I guess there is an advantage in staying smaller. Once you're discovered, it's over. But it is nice to see your pals getting a raise."
Nevertheless, Condo doesn't worry about external forces - he's busy bringing fresh energy to classic songwriting. And he's aware that anything of quality takes time to cultivate. "You can't put on a zoot suit and a fedora, say, 'I'll get a bunch of guys together who can read charts and we'll have a band.' The Starliners from Australia had been together for 9 years. We've been around since '84. It's a matter of time, effort, and love - that's what makes you totally authentic." That, and sensitivity for what the musicians of the past felt in their compositions and performances - a heritage increasingly threatened by interests pushing "new" for the sake of "new." "It's like Duke Ellington said," Condo reflected. "'If you've lost your heritage, you've lost everything.'"