Live from the Radio Room
Mandolinist Bill Powers is focusing his four string banjo, Shelley Gray's precision bass playing, Cory Obert's fiery fiddling and Rob Miller's solid guitar pickin' in a Herculean effort to explain Sweet Sunny South's distinctive and hard-hitting sound. He then sighs, draws a deep breath and momentously utters, "Actually, a lot of it comes from lack of knowing what we are doing." The rest of the band bursts into raucous laughter, happy that Bill has finally gotten to the heart of the matter. "We just got lucky," Shelley flashes one of her trademark smiles. "We were striving for that hard core traditional bluegrass sound, but we never quite got there," Bill elaborates, still grinning. A growing legion of fans are elated the band never quite "got there." Sweet Sunny South's sound is tempered by equal parts bluegrass and old-time with healthy doses of imagination, humor and zaniness thrown in for good measure. It's also a sound that's deeply rooted in the past. "In our little town, the history and the present are constantly meeting," Bill insightfully observes. "We'd like to think we're presenting something new that's tied to the past." The band's debut disc, Bell Creek Dance Club, a tribute to an old dance club that sat just outside the band's small Western Slope hometown of Paonia, Colorado, does just that. Producer Adam Burke skillfully intertwined snippets of interviews from folks who had frequented that infamous haunt in between a plethora of arresting originals from Bill and Rob along with a handful of old-time tunes. The result is a work of art that succeeds not only musically, but stands on it's own as an important historical document. "That album has really bridged a gap in the community," Shelly proudly states, somewhat surprised by the universal acclaim that has been heaped on the project. "It's brought people together who ordinarily never would have had any contact with one another." That sense of community has been vital to the group's vibrancy and continued existence. "This band never would have gotten off the ground without community support," Shelley says gratefully. "We have a lot of businesses and groups that sponsor us and we, [in turn], do benefits for them." Pull your rig on in and park it/At Paonia's Homestead Market/For the finest natural meat that you can get Just come on in and meet us/There's no other meat can beat us/And you'll be back again you can bet . . . The band sings approvingly of The Homestead Market, a group of local ranchers who banded to together to open Paonia's beloved meat market. "It's the best [meat] you can get and it comes from right here," Bill marvels, the mere mention of the store causing hyperactive salivary glands in all within earshot. "That jingle has become one of our most requested numbers. "It really gets people's attention." In fact, the band's prowess with jingle creation has earned them several other eager clients along with a win in the New Belgium Brewery's Fat Tire Beer "What's Your Folly" contest. As their reward for penning the winning jingle, Sunny South's likeness will be emblazoned on millions of beer coasters nationwide. Besides their entrepreneurial flair, the group is well known for it's exciting and exhilarating stage show. With tunes like Bill's original, "Cochetopa Ropadopa" (Bill's surreal look at a car chase between James Brown and Muhammad Ali over Cochetopa Pass complete with lines like "wrestle with an alligator/tussle with a whale") in their repertoire, no one in the audience walks away unhappy. "I just love the idea of juxtaposing old time music with the likes of James Brown and Muhammad Ali, two of the most unlikely figures you would expect in any sort of old time or bluegrass song," Bill remarks. The other reason everyone smiles at every Sweet Sunny South gig is . . . Shelley, the "newest" member of the band. "She really completed what we had going on," Bill waxes rhapsodically. "Whenever we're lost and don't know what we're doing, she's just thumping away on the bass, rocking out, grooving and smiling from ear to ear. I swear half the people come and see us just to see her do that." "They even tell us that to our faces," Cory shakes his head in mock incredulity. "You can't watch her play and not feel good," Bill opines. Besides being the band's "business guru," fastest string changer, Rob has helped the band, as Bill succinctly puts it, "think outside of the box and operate outside the box." That visionary thinking has helped propel the band to the forefront of a new breed of genre-obliterating groups such as The Wilders, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Biscuit Burners. It's a work ethic that has led to two additional mesmerizing projects on the band's own Two Dolla Recca label, Wild 'n Swingin' (in 2005) and the just released Live at the Radio Room. It's an approach that has led the IBMA to extend an invitation to Sweet Sunny South to showcase it's wares at the annual Trade Show in the fall of 2006. "It really comes down to the fact my version of reality just isn't as solid as everyone else's," Rob humorously interjects. "I believe you can just paint the whole picture over if you don't like it." Written By, Dave Higgs For Bluegrass Now, Bands to Watch August 2006.