photo by Dave Leucinger
In many ways, Milwaukee’s Hank Thomas and his Western Starlanders could be viewed as refugees that may have finally found the Promised Land. While most have played variations of old-school country in previous groups, none previously felt the right fit. Standup bassist Jeff Cyr, co-founder and five-year veteran of the Rustbelt Boys, acknowledged that disconnection. “In the Rustbelt Boys, the direction was more rockabilly,” he said. “But over time, I outgrew my wild-ass teenage rockabilly days, and felt held back. This is by far the best opportunity I’ve had to play the music I like. What I wanted to do for years, I’m doing now.”
Cyr, rhythm guitarist Thomas, and lead guitarist/pedal steel player Bobby Rivera had all briefly interacted in previous units – Cyr and Thomas in the Rustbelt Boys ; Thomas and Rivera in the Riverwesterners; and Cyr and Rivera in the Uptown Savages. Each had tried to integrate more vintage country sounds with their previous groups. “We did some stuff in the Savages at first,” said Rivera , “but it was phased out.” Part of the problem, Cyr noted, was instrumentation. “But with our current instrumentation, we can pull off the songs much better now,” he said.
With common focus, Thomas and company have quickly fused into a crisp, interactive quartet, blending old-school country and hopped-up hillbilly. The inspirations for Thomas and Cyr are also shared. “I saw BR5-49 in their early days - at Robert’s in Nashville - and I was turned on to old honky tonk country,” Thomas said. For Cyr, his touchstone is Wayne “The Train” Hancock. “I saw him in ‘95, and that did it. We formed the Rustbelt Boys, and our first gig was opening for BR5-49,” Cyr recalled. And how did the Starlanders debut? “Our first show was opening for Wayne (Hancock) at Reed Street Station,” Thomas said. The group’s fourth member, drummer Patrick Morrow, made the switch from jazz and R&B groups. He noted that the Starlanders ’ boogie with twang isn’t far removed from jazz. “If you listen to the old western swing, you can hear how close it is to straight swing it’s the tying link.”
The journey to this point has not been without adversity and setbacks. Rivera is continuing a noteworthy comeback from serious injury. “Last July I was moving a fan, and the index finger of my picking hand was ¾ sliced off,” he said. “The tendons were gone, the nerves were gone, and the veins were gone – it all had to be surgically reattached.” What it has meant is that Rivera plays through pain, and will continue to do so for the next year. “As I use it, it stiffens up. It’ll be that way for a while, as it continues to heal,” he said. “I can’t play four hours straight like I used to. And I’ve had to relearn every-thing about playing.”
Both Thomas and Cyr noted that Milwaukee’s support of classic country continues to grow. “The whole western swing/old country thing has been stirring around for awhile,” Cyr said. “Guys like the Western Box Turtles and Tim Cook have good fan bases; we always support each other. And national shows by Wayne and Dale (Watson) are almost always packed.” One key factor in building support has been changing attitudes towards country. “A lot of people are turned off by ‘country,’” Cyr said, “but they’re thinking the whole Garth Brooks, pop tunes in cowboy hats thing. The minute that people hear what we’re doing, they change their opinions. I challenged a guy from work that insisted he wouldn’t like us – he came out and changed his mind; it wasn’t what he expected. People just need to be educated on what real country is.”
One other way Thomas and the Starlanders are building bridges is by playing beyond the recognizable cluster of Milwaukee clubs. “Yes, we play a lot in the ‘burbs,” Thomas said. “We like to bring the band to the people, and to not burn out the crowds in the city. One other reason is that I live in New Berlin and I know the clubs. What’s fun is playing places like the Silver Spur – the owner has been pleased with the reaction and the response. It just reinforces our belief that if you see us, you’ll like us. And it expands our audience.”
The Starlanders are working towards a full-length CD, but want to ensure that it fully represents the group’s talents. “We need to add more original tunes,” Cyr said. “We’re not opposed to covers, but we want the CD to be 90% originals. Very few artists have been successful playing just covers.” Cyr and Rivera are working on many of the tunes, but don’t emphasize their efforts individually. “We want to do it where everything’s co-written,” Rivera said. “I’ve been in groups where the song comes in finished – lyrics and melody. Here, we just let the song progress as we rehearse; it can develop in practice.” But along with the fun they have, Thomas and his band mates have a noticeable intensity about them. “It can get hectic, but we’re really focused on developing more of our material,” Thomas said.
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