No retreat

After the setback of the Cartwrights, Donny Ray Ford gets a taste of success

After the heart-rending breakup of Killbilly--not long after a wildly successful tour of mainland China, no less--many folk pinned their homegrown alt-country hopes on the Cartwrights, a group that included ex-'billy Alan Wooley, longtime local light Barry Kooda (Nervebreakers, Yeah Yeah Yeah), and Donny Ray Ford, one of the purest mediums channeling the spirit of ol' George Jones in this or any other city. After releasing a promising debut, Ponderosa Fabuloso, and putting another album in the can, the Cartwrights broke up amid internal dissonance, leaving fans of original (as in non-derivative) local country to heave a big sigh and consider a host of mighta-beens.

Ford soon convened the excellent Liberty Valance and went back to grinding away at the local circuit, which has been good enough to the singer-songwriter-guitarist to allow him to hover about the poverty line for much of his career. Recently, Ford has hit a spot of good luck: The Backsliders, a group from Raleigh, North Carolina--currently sitting at the top of the Americana chart by virtue of their Pete Anderson- (Dwight Yoakam's guitarist and producer) produced album Throwin' Rocks at the Moon--have included a Ford composition, "Cowboy Boots," on the disc and even released it as the album's first single.

The Backsliders are a country-rock outfit not that different from Liberty Valance, and "Cowboy Boots"--an uptempo number that asks the appropriate morning-after question "Where'n the hell's my cowboy boots?"--fits well with the album's overall sound. As for Ford--whose name is misspelled "Donnie" on Throwin' Rocks' credits--he's started up yet another band, the Widowmakers. Although an affable enough guy in person, Ford somewhat sheepishly confesses to being of the "screamin', yellin' dictator" school of bandleaders, a persona modeled in part on his hero, General George S. Patton. "I just got tired of trying to make Liberty Valance something it wasn't and decided to let it be what it was, and stop gettin' so pissed off at everybody," he says.

Enter the Widowmakers. "For one thing, I play rhythm guitar with them, instead of bass, so it's easier to do more with my voice, play around and get fancy. With the bass you always have to think about what you're doing, and it gets distracting when you're trying to sing," he explains, noting that, while Liberty Valance may not be playing quite as much now as in the past, he has no intention of breaking up the band.

The Widowmakers play Saturday, April 5, at the Square Room in Fort Worth and two Saturdays after that on April 19 at the Barley House.

Notes from the road
Most rock 'n' roll books go for flash and fire, seeking to pull in the ducats--and, not incidentally, make up for less-than-accomplished prose--by addressing some titillating aspect of the big time: I Was a Drug Stooge for the Rolling Stones or Axl Rose Made My Bottom Hurt. With Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer (Chronicle Books, hardback; $22.95) author Mike Lankford takes the opposite tack, addressing a career that starts off in the lowest, least-competent ranks of garage-dom and moves only as far as 350-gigs-a-year bar-band anonymity.

It's an approach of almost unprecedented freshness, and Lankford makes it pay off by employing a matter-of-fact style that's short on bells and whistles and long on insight. His story (boy meets drums, boy gets drums, boy--after a long, wearisome yeoman's stint--abandons drums) is a progressive series of awakenings and the lessons that spring from them. Mesmerized by the drummers in the two-bit bands that played the Teen Club during his Oklahoma boyhood, Lankford early on decided that he wanted to become a drummer, one with "style"--as opposed to the "whacker" approach, which made up with enthusiasm for what it lacked in finesse. There were a number of hurdles along the way--Mom, for one, and then the price of the sparkly red Rogers drumset young Mike had his rock 'n' roll heart set on--but he finally gained his heart's desire.

Which--in a theme that's to be repeated throughout the book--is when the hard part starts. "There is a hole in my memory as to what followed," Lankford writes about his first sit-down at his new drumset. "...I'm sure it's fair to say that all rocket disasters look somewhat alike. Two or three minutes of the worst kind of racket, and then a long silence before the birds will start singing again. Even the insects seemed stunned...It was as if I were swimming in a vast ocean of potential drum knowledge, and yet couldn't manage to swallow a single drop."

Lankford is an innocent right out of Candide, and the rest of the book is one long education. He finally works hard enough to advance up to the dregs of the music scene: high school bands. There, his education continues apace: "First gigs are always an anxious experience, but in bad bands doubly so. A bad band is like a tepee: The individual sticks holding things up are slender and wobbly and not worth much unless strategically arranged with other such sticks. Everybody leans on everyone else...I'd looked at the band from every angle and decided the only smart thing to do would be to keep the floppy side of our teepee facing away from the road--which meant trying to get Larry to turn way down."

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