How to Be a Good Cover Band

If you'd asked two years ago, I would have said that the only reason for a cover band to exist is to make money and watch the crazy shit that goes down at weddings, and that's coming from someone who's been in one. Yeah, I admit it—the Ronnie Dobbs Band could "rock your corporate event" with hits from Coldplay to Heart. We were never meant to write our own material or go any further than holiday parties at local venues. I also got total shit for being in a cover band. It's a stigma. "You don't do any original music?" "Oh God, you have to sing 'Lights' by Journey?!" Looking back now, those were fun times, but the jokes and snarking also turned me into a snob. Tribute nights are one thing, but professional cover bands became a whole new cancer for me.

After realizing that in 10 rehearsals or less, one could master a set of covers, I discovered that if a band was simply a cover band all the time the lack of effort would be infuriating. There'd be no satisfaction from an audience loving an original song. You'd simply be a fat cash-earning conduit for blasts from the pasts, and I didn't see any honor in taking listeners back to their days at the skating rink, bellbottoms or the night they lost their virginity. There are DJs for that.

All that held until I ran into the King Bucks. Via covers and (gasp!) the occasional original tune, the King Bucks will take you (or me, specifically) back to Dad teaching how to pop a beer top, sitting in Granny's kitchen at that cool metal table and insisting that brown cowboy boots needed to be worn with an Easter dress. Somehow those blasts aren't as offensive when done with reverence for the original musicians such as Buck Owens (hence the name), the Louvin Brothers, the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Hank Thompson, David Allan Coe, Dylan and the like. As King Buck Chad Stockslager says, "It's not a tribute to a band as much as a style or genre. It's a time-honored sound."

Before there's any question as to why the Bucks break the cover band mold, let's get the history out of the way. Those of you aware of Dallas/Denton music from the last decade will remember a little outfit called Budapest One. After the demise of that group came the Drams—who play packed houses (such as New Year's Eve with the Old 97's) and claim a couple of the same members as Budapest One. Said Drams—Keith Killoren and Stockslager—began a weekly Wednesday night set at the Barley House.

Between the two of them, Killoren and Stockslager have been in about 1,279 bands. Not really, of course, but their studio-quality skills are often borrowed and loaned out for friends' recordings and live performances. In the same vein, Killoren & Stockslager started hosting some regular guests at their performances: Joseph Butcher (UFOFU, Pleasant Grove, Polyphonic Spree and 917 other bands), Danny Balis (Sorta, Sparrows, 313 others) and Chris Carmichael (Airline, Sorta, 189 others).

The King Bucks were made official in September of last year. "We played our first gig as a full band at Mesquite Rodeo. People there thought we were too loud. We were," says Butcher after the Bucks performed during the Boys Named Sue's "House of Sues" night to a healthy crowd at House of audience probably a bit more prepared for the decibels than the God and Garth Brooks-fearing rodeo folk.

The Bucks' performances include an impressive yet tried and true honky-tonk-style rotation of Stockslager, Killoren, Balis and Butcher on main vocals in addition to their normal duties on keys, guitar, bass and pedal steel, respectively. All members contribute to the playlist of originals and covers.

Stockslager says the simplicity of the honky-tonk song structure makes it both a pleasure to cover and an inspiration from which to craft original tunes. "Think of Ernest Tubb. The structure of his songs is so can't listen to that stuff and not be affected by it. It's as simple as that," he says. "Keith and I were working on a song the other day, and the structure is so bare-bones you can hang anything off it and just go for broke."

The Bucks toss in three or four original songs per set. Some of them have been around since Budapest One; others are new inventions that Butcher describes as "rip-offs of other songs we like, albeit obscure ones."

"We've had these songs we've been wanting to play, but we needed a proper outfit for them, so we've been working them in piece by piece," Stockslager says. "I think there's a growing need for these original songs," he adds, before making an observation that pretty much sums up my entire point about the Bucks.

He explains how they are lucky to be a band of people devoted to the honky-tonk song—which encompasses a great many elements, tempos, emotions and sounds. He says that while there's an expectation of the honky-tonk band to show up and play songs people can dance to, those dances can be slow, fast, mid-tempo. They can be sad, celebratory or romantic. "There's a fine line. Boys Named Sue are a great band and a blast to watch, but if they tried to do a song that breaks your heart it wouldn't work," Stockslager says. The King Bucks work within a range in which the Everlys, George Jones and David Allan Coe can all find a home. Thus, they can throw in an original inspired by any of the old standards they perform, and as long as they're true to the emotion of the honky-tonk, it too will find a welcome.

Stockslager admits it's hard to abandon the old favorites. "We've got a small mountain of songs waiting there, but you get your teeth in the old stuff and it's hard to get away from those," he says. And that's fine. It's important their teeth stay in them. The King Bucks—these guys who, as Stockslager says, play poker after shows while listening to the Possum and "weepy honk-tonky stuff" from other legends, so you know they're for real—have officially removed "cover band" from the shit list and restored a belief that the "old C&W standard" could be created in present times.

Hell, they've even freshened the vaudeville-like style of the old shows when, as Stockslager says, "June Carter would come out and tell the crowd a thing or two." It often comes in the form of what he calls their secret weapon: Joe Butcher. "He works all this blue material in between our stuff with five-minute rants," Stockslager says. "To me, it's classic. It's irreverent and fun." And he's right.

Still, there are rules, and here are King Buck Joe Butcher's regulations for being in a Dallas cover band, or this one, anyway:

1. Band members should be good-looking. Nobody wants to be forced to look at unattractive people for any length of time. Good looks trump actual talent any day.

2. At least one guy in the band should have a mustache. Not a goatee either. Those are for losers. A "soul patch" will get you kicked in the nards.

3. Blinding and/or maiming an audience member with a fire extinguisher (and subsequently ending their modeling career) is acceptable, but only once, and only if your name is Keith Killoren.

4. Never accept hog meat or homemade drugs as payment in lieu of actual cash.

5. Do not have sex with ANY musician, EVER, especially if they are in The King Bucks, as their virile seed will impregnate you just from looking at it, and the "devil baby" you give birth to will be the least of your worries.

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Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin