Unlikely hybrid

The cocktail country of the Lucky Pierres proves to be the right mix

Liquor and country music are as connected as Siamese twins. Sure, George Jones is sober now, but his hallowed liver--crusted in a bell jar in a Nashville tourist emporium--will someday rank with Graceland and Jim Morrison's tomb as a prime music shrine.

Still, when the Lucky Pierres talk about their brand of "cocktail country," the union of spirits and melody takes on a slightly different twist. Think Merle Haggard scatting happy-hour jazz, or Hank Thompson and Ella Fitzgerald sipping mai tais together.

"We call it cocktail country because of what [singer] Michelle Gonzalez-Pittenger brings to the table," says the band's guitarist and pedal steel player, Kim Herriage. "Before she joined, we'd originally pursued a cross between Buck Owens and the Everly Brothers. It was just four guys. But when she came on board, it was definitely like bringing a nuclear warhead to the fireworks stand."

The Lucky Pierres were born when Herriage and guitarist Tom Battles found themselves without gigs. Herriage was an alumnus of the Mutineers (the country band formerly known as the Cartwrights) and had played alongside Battles occasionally with Tex Edwards and the Swinging Cornflake Killers. When those amalgamations broke up, Herriage and Battles contacted two other old pals, bassist Bart Chaney (the Enablers, Feet First) and drummer Frank Pittenger (Zydeco Faux Pas), and started jamming.

"We wanted the traditional aspect that Owens represented," Herriage says, "and to throw in those country harmonies. When you think about the Everlys, maybe country doesn't come to mind. But in retrospect, they have a hell of a lot more to do with country than Shenandoah or Little Texas."

Christening themselves the Lucky Pierres (after a term coined by Edwards to describe the central giver/recipient in a menage à trois), the quartet experimented with a variety of vocal assignments, more or less focusing on whoever had written a particular song. And while it seemed to be working, all were open when Pittenger suggested letting his then-girlfriend (now wife) Michelle Gonzalez come to a rehearsal and sing a few songs.

A remarkable talent who studied voice throughout college at both the University of Texas and Southwest Texas State, Gonzalez-Pittenger had dedicated much of her life to musical theater and the sort of jazz associated with Sarah Vaughan. But during college, she heard and fell in love with Patsy Cline, and her assimilation of Cline and Vaughan--in conjunction with her own unique style, which conjures visions of warm salt-water taffy being luxuriantly stretched out on one of those pulling machines at the State Fair--is something special.

Except for a few background sessions for Jack Ingram and Rhett Miller, she hadn't really made a mark on the Dallas music scene until hooking up with the Pierres. But she immediately added a defining quality to their coalescing sound; by their first gig in the spring of '96, Gonzalez-Pittenger was semi-official.

"I'd be in the crowd," she says, "and they'd play a few songs and then ask me up to sing. I felt a little awkward at the beginning. After all, here's the drummer--my boyfriend--saying, 'Hey, my girlfriend can sing. Let her try!' Oh, God!

"But I was really flattered when they said, 'Sing more, please.'" Gonzalez-Pittenger would pop up wherever the band needed her to harmonize on a few tunes or to actually carry a song. Quickly enough, it became obvious what should happen.

"Michelle wasn't pushy at all," Herriage remembers. "In fact, she was probably too shy. She was like, 'I don't want to take anybody's parts.' But she was so great, and we were already thinking it was too confusing to have four front guys. So we eventually decided to take some time to retool and focus on Michelle as the singer."

While Gonzalez-Pittenger admits it was occasionally strange trying to interpret some of the "guy" songs, the combination of her torch-song deliveries with the Pierres' already different constructions quickly evolved into something special.

"Frank and Michelle both come from a jazzier background," Herriage explains, "Tom and I were pushing that old-core country, and Bart, of course, is with the Enablers, so he's got that lounge noir thing going. You throw it all together, and it's pretty exciting."

In fact, the Lucky Pierres are throwing it all together. They're in the midst of an ongoing recording process at Goodnight Audio with hopes of completing 13 to 16 songs for what will likely be a CD in the near future. A three-song sampling of the material reveals the Pierres to have zeroed in on their cocktail country target with the focus of a young Hank Williams homing in on a whiskey bottle. Pedal steel swirls around twanging rhythms even as the structures of the songs branch off the beaten country path down a jazzier trail. Over it all soars Gonzalez-Pittenger's voice, celebrating all things heartbroken, cheated on, or related to other such time-honored country topics.

"We listen a lot to the last Mavericks CD," Herriage says. "The way they mixed that archetypical C&W with a '50s sort of Martin Denny/tiki bar music was really cool. It made us realize you don't have to do pure honky-tonk music to stay true to the ideal. You can sprinkle a little jazz into the longneck. It's pretty flavorful."

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