For over 20 years, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys have been keeping the music of their rockabilly founding fathers alive, while keeping things fresh. They’re one of the premiere practitioners of American roots rock and they play it as if they were there when it began. When you ask Big Sandy about the band’s music he says, “I think of us as just a rock and roll band – a rock and roll band that’s letting the roots show.” Music has been an inspiration to him all his life, beginning with an early fascination of Elvis Presley. Big Sandy’s quest to find out more about the King of Rock and Roll led him to find out what inspired Elvis, “which in turn led me on a search to try to find some of the records that might have been in his collection. In elementary school, I spent hours in the local library reading up on music history with special attention to the different genres of music that led to the development of rock and roll.”
These hours spent listening to the origins of rock music would take him to another world and daydreams of being the person on stage singing these songs. By the time he hit his teenage years the Stray Cats burst onto the scene. Along with The Blasters, The Rockin’ Rebels, and the guy who had the biggest influence on Big Sandy’s quest to become a musician, James Intveld, he found himself surrounded by music that had survived the last thirty years.
By the time he started the Fly-Rite Boys in ’88, Big Sandy had already been in several rockabilly bands, but they hadn’t quite clicked up until that point. They had been working day jobs on top of gigging, but it was when their first LP was released in ’89 and reviewed in the British rock magazine “Now Dig This” that the transformation from Robert Williams to Big Sandy was complete and he realized music was what he wanted to do with his life.
The music these guys have created since then has translated into several albums full of excited joyful music filled with an infectious quality causing your toes to tap and your hips to shimmy. The years have been good to Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys as they’ve grown in popularity and stature – finding themselves as one of the most well-respected modern rockabilly bands. When asked if it’s the band’s goal to stick close to their traditional roots, Sandy says that’s not something they focus on when writing and recording.
“I think our approach to the music and the sound we get is mostly a result of the music that I grew up listening to and have always played. Other bands and musicians sometimes have different musical backgrounds than we do and their take on things reflects that. I don’t really feel like I’m on a mission to preserve traditional sounds, even though that might be the end result. I just want to make MUSIC and I have to stick with what I know because, well, it’s what I know. It’s better for me to leave the Neo or Psycho end of things to those that know those genres and are good at playing it.”
Not everything has been peaches and cream for Big Sandy as he admits his battle with the bottle has been his biggest challenge. “It’s a fine line to walk. I know that it has been responsible for helping me come up with what I think are some of my better songs over the years – and some of my more inspired stage performances – but it’s also cost me a lot over the years.” But his strong personal convictions help keep him grounded when life throws those inevitable curve balls. Family also plays a large role in keeping him “well-balanced, grounded and motivated.”
Like any of us, the right situation and location are needed to get motivated. Sitting at a bar nursing a drink and soaking up other people’s conversations is a great source of musical inspiration for Big Sandy. He’ll get inspired at odd moments and it never hurts to have a guitar nearby to help translate what he’s hearing into an actual written piece. Taking those words to paper, then to instrument, and finally to record is always an exciting and rewarding process for Big Sandy. It doesn’t stop there because as he tells me, “There is nothing at all like playing a song off of your latest record and watching people in the crowd sing along to it. THAT is the greatest feeling.”
This doesn’t stop at recording with his Fly-Rite Boys. If you haven’t already, you should do yourself a favor and pick up Los Straitjackets’ 2007 “Rock En Español, Vol. 1″ featuring Big Sandy. Having a chance to work with Cesar Rosas, who produced the record, was a thrill for the musician. Growing up in LA created a love and respect for Los Lobos, “so I felt very fortunate to find myself working with Cesar at his home studio.”
Their subsequent tour was a blast for Big Sandy. “There’s not as much pressure for me when I’m out on the road with them, mainly because it’s not my band and I don’t have the responsibilities that go along with that. I can cut loose more and tap into a different kind of performance that I don’t get to explore with my own band.” He’s talked with Los Straitjackets about getting together again for Vol. 2 and it looks as if there’s a very good chance of that happening again in the future.
His love of music doesn’t stop with what you hear him play onstage each night. Age, experience, and exposure to a wide variety of music over the years has taught him there are plenty of great tunes to catch. “A lot of people that I’ve talked to on the road seem to have the impression that I’m only into the kind of music that I myself have played over the years and that I’m only a fan of bands with a ‘traditional’ approach. That isn’t the case at all. I might have been a bit that way when I first started, but I was a teenage kid then, but I’m a forty-something year old man now.”
However, the popular music scene isn’t something that takes a place in Big Sandy’s life. He stopped paying attention to what was considered popular and the latest hip trends back in the 90’s. His opinion is that, “Popular culture, in general, has gone to shit and most of the new music coming out these days is a direct reflection of that.” He’s not alone in this when you consider the low quality music most large record labels pump out in order to get a mediocre hit while hundreds of quality bands remain independent and “undiscovered.” He also sees problems in the ‘billy scene, but offers a potential solutions. “I think that if all of us in the rockabilly/psychobilly/roots world banded together, we might really be able to make some noise and have an impact on a much bigger scale.”
One of the bands on his radar, which he recommends we try to catch, is Eilen Jewell – a young lady based out of Boston with her band. “She’s a great songwriter, has a fantastic voice and drinks home-brewed liquor out of a fruit jar. The whole band does actually and I thought that I was bad with the tequila.” He was so blown away by her performance that he’s set it a goal to get her band back touring again with the Fly-Rite Boys.
Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys have plans to put out a new album, but recording the album was postponed when tragedy struck bassist Jeff West. He sustained injuries to his arm and hand, which resulted in some necessary surgery. This put the bassist out of commission for eight months, but the band continued to tour with their pal Kevin Stewart filling in. The new material wasn’t touched until they were sure Jeff was ready to rejoin the band onstage and in the studio. Now that he’s back with the band, they’ve got a couple of things in the works.
“Now that [Jeff] is back, he and I have been writing new songs and hope to record early next year. Before that, though, it looks like we’re going to do an all acoustic album and revisit some of our older material, but with acoustic arrangements.”
One of the true stand-out songs in the Big Sandy arsenal is “Power of the 45.” The song is a call to arms to all listeners to get their toes tappin’ as well as a roll call for the band’s major influences. It shows the respect the group has for the music they both listen to and create. As Big Sandy put it, the song is, “both a tribute to some of the musicians whose records inspired me growing up and a salute to that magical process of laying a diamond tipped needle into a vinyl groove and having such joyful noises that come pouring out.” Names mentioned in the song include Junior Parker, Janis Martin, Ronnie Dawson, Glen Glenn, Little Esther, Chuck Berry and Etta James. “I think with this album we’ve gotten to the point where we fully and more accurately represent the full spectrum of what we were listening to when all of us were growing up,” Big Sandy says when asked about “Turntable Matinee.” “Power of the 45″ is his personal shout out to the musicians that moved him in his younger days. Some of them, including Glen Glenn and Johnny Powers, have become friends in recent years. One name mentioned, Ronnie Dawson, has a special place for Sandy. “Ronnie Dawson was in there because he is, was, and always will be a huge inspiration as a performer and as a human being.”
Keep a look out in 2012, it looks like a big year for Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys with their tour already full-steam ahead and the possibility of a new album!