You’ve gotta have balls to name your band The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. You’re just setting yourself up for a serious fall. Critics and fans alike are instantly going to compare everything you do against “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire.” There’s no way you’re going to come out ahead on that one. And if that’s not intimidating enough, then you have to go face the Man in Black himself and ask please, oh please, can we pretend to be your illegitimate offspring. Tall order.
For Mark Stuart, it all came easy. In 1995, after wallowing around in various jam bands, pounding out classic-inspired rock for the surfer hippies that populate the beaches of his native San Diego, Stuart decided to try his hand at playing the kind of country he’d always loved—Bakersfield boogie with a bit of Tex-Mex spice. He wrote a few songs—roughly a hundred or so—put together a band and started gigging around Southern California. Soon, word of the group’s manic live show started to spread, eventually leading to opening slots with legends like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Then came the meeting with the man himself. Stuart invited Cash to a show; he must have liked what he heard because he gave the band permission—reportedly against the advice of his attorneys—to use his name. “We just got him with the live show,” Stuart says. “I always wanted this group to rock like a rock band rather than sound like something they’d do at the Grand Ole Opry. I guess that worked for him too.”
But while Cash likes The Bastards’ rebellious take on things, Nashville doesn’t. Like most bands playing real country revved up on Jack and Panhandle dust—think the Old 97’s and the once-mighty Whiskeytown—The Bastards are barely allowed within Nashville city limits. Seems the country capitol doesn’t much like country anymore, instead opting for saccharine-sounding songs that, when paired with a perky figure, could have serious crossover potential. “We just don’t fit the Nashville sound,” Stuart says. “Nashville is this small-knit community, and they dictate what’s on the radio and what’s played on the video stations. There’s no room for bands like us.”
It’s forced The Bastards to blaze their own trail. Stuart is just fine with that. Like the guys the band strives to emulate—Jennings, Nelson and, of course, Cash—working outside of the establishment fits The Bastards’ outlaw spirit like a well-worn Stetson. “The fact is that we’re pretty much on our own,” Stuart says. “We have to make our own breaks.”
The group has done just that, strictly by spreading the Bastard gospel wherever the group goes. The band’s live shows not only won over Cash and a growing legion of fans, but also the upstart label Ultimatum Records, started by mega-management agency William Morris.
Stuart is hoping the group’s just-released debut disc, Walk Alone (Ultimatum), will bring a few more fans into the fold. Crammed with songs about truck stops, Texas and tender hearts, the disc is an ode to all things country. There’s a bit of central California dust, some El Paso spice and even a smidge of Memphis rockabilly & roll. Tracks like the rambling “Interstate Cannonball” or saucy “Seven Steps” are meant for the jukebox of some long-lost dive full of greasy guys sucking down greasy beers.
You can just see The Good Ole Boys (from the classic Blues Brothers, of course) behind the chicken wire at Bob’s Country Bunker rolling through numbers like “440 Horses” or “Trains Gonna Roll,” beer bottles breaking everywhere. Steel guitars drone on almost every track. Stuart laces every line with enough twang to make Hank Sr. proud. And in true Outlaw fashion, Stuart doesn’t forget to pay homage to his heroes, covering Dale Waston’s “Truckstop in La Grange” and the Merle Haggard classic “Silver Wings.” Stuart says it’s just a way to keep true to the Cali sound.
“In a way, we’re continuing on the tradition of California country that Merle started,” Stuart says. “We didn’t start out to be proponents of the Bakersfield sound. There’s just something about the West Coast that makes country sound this way. It’s not cookie-cutter country. It’s the real stuff.”
And even though Stuart knows that it’s unlikely that The Bastards will suddenly be duking it out with Shania Twain for country Album of the Year, he’s still hoping that the group might somehow break through Nashville’s glass ceiling. “There’s people who want to hear music like this,” Stuart says. “We’re not going to start setting any unrealistic goals or anything. But if there’s a happy accident, that’s great. Right now we’re just trying to make one fan at a time, the way we’ve always done it.”
It’s that dedication that’s making Stuart get out of bed today. He’s suffering from any touring band’s worst enemy: the flu. And even though he should really just chug a bottle of cough syrup and sleep for three days, Stuart is getting ready to go give a Memphis crowd what they paid for.
“This is what we do,” Stuart says. “You can’t come 2,000 miles and stay in the hotel room. You have to get out there and put on a show. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. The Zephyr Club, 301 S. West Temple (355-CLUB), Friday April 20, 9:30 p.m.