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."

Gonzalez-Pittenger has settled comfortably into her role as the band's front person. "I think I fit right in," she laughs. "At first, I didn't know how to volley punchlines with them--they're a pretty witty, but strange, bunch of guys--but it's been a lot of fun. They were a great band before I came along, so it's a pleasure to be part of it."

While the recording project rolls along, the Lucky Pierres are starting to play in public a bit more: The band will open for Cowboys & Indians on October 10 at the Sons of Hermann Hall.

As for any of the whiz-kid scenesters who wander onto the bandwagon and remember Herriage and Chaney from their formative Deep Ellum days--when their band Feet First was the inspiration for bands such as the New Bohemians--Herriage can only say music, like life, is ever-changing.

"People come up and say, 'Weren't you guys in Feet First?'" Herriage says. "'We crept in to see you when we were kids.'" He switches his tone to mock-Vince Lombardi gruffness. "I just tell 'em, 'Hey, I got pieces of punks like you in my stool.' You can say that when you're a venerable and wily veteran. Right?"

Editorial comment
There come times when the things around you are so absurd and just so surrealistically laden with bullshit that you think you're in a dream. You pinch yourself repeatedly and realize with a shudder that you are awake.

We've made some calls, checked the Internet, and, with a shiver that has chilled our very core, realized that the news story about Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch writing a song titled "Souls Along the Way" for Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy--and having it recorded by country "artist" Madeline Stone--seems hideously real. Now Sen. Kennedy--who we thought had moderated his alcohol consumption--thinks that disingenuous folk-pop pinup Jewel should also record the ditty.

Excuse us? Orrin Hatch? Wasn't he the poison dwarf who led the Anita Hill barbecue a few years back? And Ted Kennedy? Granted, he's been involved with, and a force behind, some of the most female-empowering legislation ever to pass into law, but he--and indeed his whole clan--has a personal record with women that doesn't exactly compel admiration. If you could die of shame, both men would've been compost long ago, so it probably won't matter whether or not Jewel tells these two presumptuous boobs exactly where to get off and why, but we can still hope that she does. Tell you what, guys: Stay the hell away from music, and Street Beat will make sure that Michael Bolton doesn't introduce any new health-care legislation.

--Matt Weitz

Scene, heard
The Mullens have a new album out on Get Hip Records titled Step On the Gas, the release party for which will be October 18 at the Orbit Room...Sunday, October 5, the Walden Piano Quartet will present an evening of classical music featuring works by Brahms, Mahler, and Beethoven at SMU's Caruth Auditorium; for more info call (214) 691-5652...Elvis T. Busboy will be holding court at the Billiard Bar on Lower Greenville every Wednesday in October...Earl Harvin and Dave Palmer--who most recently collaborated on Harvin's Leaning House Records release Strange Happy--will be in town at various music spots from October 7 through 16. The pair, who just got done working with Seal on his pending new release, will be joined by bassist Fred Hamilton. The first gigs will be Tuesday, October 7, through Saturday, October 11, at Sambuca...Michelle Solberg--with band--will be at the Velvet Elvis on Friday, October 3...Jibe is back in Crystal Clear Studios working on a three-tune sampler of their new work, due out on a full-length album sometime in 1998...the Tomorrowpeople have finalized a six-disc recording contract with Geffen, and Britain's Einnor Records has agreed to license and distribute the bulk of Last Beat's catalog, including the T.people's Golden Energy, as well as Riot Squad's Undying Breed and Pretty Ugly by Mess (actually, the Dallas band formerly known as Mess after a legal scrap with a band that had already copyrighted the name)...Farm Aid, one of the better lineups that this summer has seen, has moved to the New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, Illinois. Promoters blamed the cumulative effects of the string of large and mostly boring mega-tours that have plowed through the metroplex as of late, with (ugh) the Rolling Stones and (shudder) Fleetwood Mac yet to come...Cresta has agreed to another--and better--demo deal with MCA.

Thanks to Rick Koster for covering for Matt Weitz while he was on vacation, an event which is sadly over now. Regardless of who actually receives them (at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com, natch), however, Street Beat gets such a kick out of your e-mail tips, comments, and assistance that we can hardly stand it. Please continue.

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