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Back on the bus

Back in the old days--those being the days when rock and roll was still the bastard child of the blues, rhythm and blues was teaching white kids how to dance like the black kids, and country was for hillbillies and rednecks--when a bunch of musicians came through your town, it was an event.

The reason had to do with the relative scarcity of live-music shows 30-plus years ago; there weren't theaters on every block, nightclubs on every corner, one stage per every musician who had a guitar over the shoulder and an indie single under his or her arm. Nowadays, there's a constant barrage of recording acts on tour that hit any average-sized city; back then, the only things that set up shop in the heartland were circuses and revival tents.

Another factor that made concert tours such momentous occasions was the nature of the shows themselves--the epic proportions of package tours like Dick Clark's Rock and Roll Caravans, which featured superstar artists of different genres and races, or the traveling Motown and Atlantic shows of the 1960s, where myriad acts on the same label shared the stage for a single night of music. Up until the 1970s, country music's biggest stars would take along three or four other singers whose careers were on the rise, and even the backup bands got their handful of songs to kick off the evening.

Lollapalooza might have counted as a package tour in its infancy, but now it's nothing more than Billboard's alternative rock charts come to life in the sweaty summertime, the artists fighting it out with the crowds onstage and each other backstage. (Imagine the Atlantic revue in the '90s if Otis Redding and Sam and Dave had posted e-mail diary entries about what a pain in the ass Aretha can be when the deli tray is late.)

The Roadhouse Revival Tour, featuring acts on the Oakland, California-based HighTone Records label--Dave Alvin, Dale Watson, Buddy Miller, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, and the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz on one stage every single night--is nothing less than a throwback. From the middle of this month through February, the tour will hit 18 cities and showcase the burgeoning commitment by the label--which is probably best known for discovering contemporary bluesman Robert Cray--to the musical style(s) that fall under the radio-fabricated rubric of "Americana." (Dave Alvin would call it "folk," whether he's talking about country or rockabilly or plain old rock and roll, but he's a purist.)

HighTone president Larry Sloven acknowledges that he was "kind of inspired" by Dick Clark's Caravan tours and the legendary Stax tour of Europe that resulted in two classic records. "More recently," he says, "Antone's [Records, out of Austin] did a package tour of the West Coast a few years back. I went to the show here in San Francisco, and it really struck me as a big event--a different kind of music than this tour, but the same sort of good artists who maybe didn't have hit records."

The timing certainly seems right. Watson, Miller, and Big Sandy have all had Top 10 records on the Americana chart that debuted in the Gavin radio trade magazine a year ago--when HighTone's Tulare Dust tribute to Merle Haggard, which Alvin co-produced, debuted as the chart's first No. 1 record. HighTone has also just secured a new distribution deal with Rhino Records that will feed the label's releases through the mammoth Warner-Elektra-Atlantic distribution system, guaranteeing HighTone's records will land in every chain record store and the mom-and-pops that haven't given up to Best Buy.

Meanwhile, so-called "alternative country"--or what Wilco's Jeff Tweedy once jokingly called the "rural contemporary" scene, playing off the "urban contemporary" moniker given to black radio for no apparent reason--seems poised to become 1996's flavor of the year. Bands like the Bottle Rockets, Golden Smog, Son Volt, Wilco, Jon Langford's Waco Brothers, and Mike Henderson have all been branded with the label, even if it's just another name for the same ol' same ol'.

"Several of the artists have pretty good followings all over the country, or at least in certain regions," Sloven says. "I think that people who like Dave Alvin who live in California but aren't familiar with Buddy Miller are sure to like him, and maybe people in Nashville who are maybe fans of Buddy are going to dig Dale."

Buddy Miller's Your Love and Other Lies was one of last year's finest country discs out of Nashville--or anywhere else--in recent memory. It deserved far wider exposure than it has gotten to date, no thanks to country radio stations dominated by a Nashville assembly line that turns out bland million-selling hat acts like they were Yugos. The Roadhouse Revival Tour will afford Miller a venue he once didn't have, sharing a stage with an established artist like Alvin and other comers desperate for even the smallest break.

"I wanna get out and play, and that seems to be the most difficult thing to do, so I'm really happy," Miller gushes. "I've just been going out with an acoustic guitar, so it's tough to convey the record that way. Of course, maybe the songs will get across."

Dale Watson, an Austin-based country artist who is about to release his second HighTone album, recalls how important package tours were when he was a kid just discovering his tastes and passion for the music. He remembers going to see Conway Twitty--"the first concert I went to and paid for my own ticket"--and how the opening acts built toward the headliner. It made the show special, a bargain that paid off with valuable dividends.

"It'd be great if this became a trendsetting thing," Watson says. "I guess it's what Lollapalooza did, though on a much smaller scale."

The buildup even intimidates Dave Alvin, whose red-hot road band will also back Miller, who plays lead guitar with Jim Lauderdale as his day job, and Watson. Big Sandy will perform with His Fly-Rite Boys, while the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz--a combination of Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Lehrer, and Jeff Foxworthy--is a solo piano act.

"To tell you the truth, I'll just go up for my show and sweat bullets after following all those guitarists," Alvin says, chuckling, "but it'll be fun...[The tour] does help give the label something it needs: profile and identity. After all, it's been putting out some pretty good records lately." As Miller sees it, the tour will "stuff as many people as you can into a bus for three weeks and see who blows up first. Actually, it'll be a blast."

It will also be three hours of American music from some of its finer practitioners. Alvin also predicts that other HighTone artists will join in when the show hits their respective regions, which means Ted Roddy will play a few shows in Texas, Chris Smither in New England, and Chris Gaffney and Rosie Flores in California.

"I'm putting an enormous amount of money into it, but thankfully the artists are working cheap because they see the value in this," Sloven says. "Hopefully, it will be an event that really crystallizes this movement--not only for these artists, but for everyone doing this kind of music."

The Roadhouse Revival Tour--featuring Dave Alvin, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Buddy Miller, and Dale Watson--will come to the Sons of Hermann Hall February 17.

Alvin will read selections from his new book of poetry and prose, Any Rough Times are Now Behind You, at Borders Books and Music in Preston Royal Shopping Center, February 17 at 7 p.m.


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