Wednesday, Jul 03 2013 04:59 PM

MATT MUNOZ: They can't take away our country

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    By Photo by Joe Stormont

    The Fruit Tramps, pictured from left: Ernie Lewis, Olen Taylor, Bruce Jones and Max Gardner.

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    By Photo courtesy of Sickstring Outlaws

    Alt-country sextet the Sickstring Outlaws, appear at Sandrini's on Saturday.

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By MATT MUNOZ, Californian columnist mmunoz@bakersfield.com

This year so far has been great for Bakersfield fans of country music.

From singers Miranda Lambert and Lorrie Morgan at Rabobank Arena and Trout's to extended set ragers with the Mavericks, Foo Fighters' guitarist Chris Shiflett's homage to the Bakersfield Sound at the Crystal Palace, plus the addition of a second country station to the radio dial (92.1 KIX) and more, the genre has been well represented.

Locally, aspiring diva Whitney Wattenbarger released her ambitious debut CD, plus Taft/Bakersfield quintet Truxton Mile continues evolving into a more refined, country powerhouse (svelte lead-vocalist Ryan Coulter dropped 30-plus pounds.) The band rocked the On the Rocks' one-year anniversary show last Saturday, dropping breaking news their long-awaited debut CD is also on the way. Let's not forget, Lucky Ned Pepper, Stampede, and the Blackboard Playboys just to name a few.

Now, with the addition of The Fruit Tramps, who bring their eclectic brand of hillbilly rock mixed with country and western to Buck Owens' Crystal Palace on Tuesday and Wednesday, Bakersfield once again has a reason to keep the dancing boots within reach.

"Bakersfield's country music is getting a shot in the arm from Nashville," said Fruit Tramps guitarist Ernie Lewis on noticeable developments helping Bakersfield country music thrive again. "Artists such as Red Simpson are finally getting the recognition that they deserve."

Lewis, a former member of legendary Bakersfield honky tonkers, the Moosehead Band, is joined in The Fruit Tramps by guitarist and vocalist, Olen Taylor and drummer Bruce Jones, both formerly of alt-country band The Wichitas, and bassist Max Gardner, formerly of the Resistors. Formed following The Wichitas final bow last year opening for Willie Nelson, Lewis says he and his mates bring decades of experience for fans looking for authentic, no frills country.

Those familiar with the artistic reputations of The Wichitas and Moosehead Band as deeply committed to the purity of the genre need not be worried. According to Lewis, their roots remains unchanged as the guys who were country before country was cool.

"It's apparent that more and more former rockers have turned to playing country, either to assimilate to the country scene, be part of the Bakersfield Sound or simply make money in the country market. All of The Fruit Tramps are seasoned players who were looking to unite with the right individuals who shared the same musical interests."

That mutual interest extends to the band's name which refers to Dust Bowl-era migrant workers nicknamed "fruit tramps."

"Members of the band have family who came from Oklahoma and Arkansas during that period. Those individuals worked the fields and orchards. The name is fitting."

From Marty Stuart to Elvis Presley, Buck Owens, Asleep at the Wheel to The Blasters, Bob Wills, The Mavericks and many more, Lewis described their nightly set-lists like a comprehensive country guide book with a mix of classic covers and Wichitas originals penned by Taylor including "Greetings from Bakersfield," "Big Box Town," and "Right Side Up World."

"The band has its own unique sound that exemplifies the purity of the Bakersfield Sound."

Lewis and crew look forward to a fruitful stay at the Palace, adding they are also working on releasing a new EP sometime in the future.

"The group considers it an honor to perform at the Palace. It's like playing in a time capsule, one that shares images and stories of those who worked hard to create and propagate the Bakersfield Sound. Buck Owens created a masterpiece when he had the Crystal Palace built. The Bakersfield Sound will remain true to Bakersfield as long as performers in and around Kern County keep the music alive and the locals and area proprietors continue to support those artists."

Check out music samples and videos from the band online at reverbnation.com/thefruittramps and Facebook.

Showtime on Tuesday and Wednesday is 7 p.m. Admission is free. Buck Owens' Crystal Palace is located at 2800 Buck Owens Blvd. For more information call 328-7560.

You can also catch Olen Taylor and Ernie Lewis from The Fruit Tramps performing on Friday at The Foundry as part of the gallery's "Bakersfield Country, the Legends of the Bakersfield Sound" exhibit during the First Friday art walk at 6 p.m. The Foundry is located at 1608 19th St. For more information call 388-0278.

The Sickstring Outlaws

Representing the edgier side of country are the The Sickstring Outlaws from San Diego making their Bakersfield debut Saturday at Sandrini's.

"I really believe things have come full circle," said guitarist and vocalist Ron Houston. "And with the new guys out there now like Hank III and Shooter Jennings, the younger generation is getting to hear what we heard growing up. This pop country stuff on the radio now has set real country back 100 years, but Bakersfield will always have real country music thanks to people like Red Simpson who are still playing today."

Houston has some authority on the subject. Born and raised in Bakersfield, Houston moved to San Diego in 1987, immersing himself in the Southern California scene. After forming the Sickstring Outlaws eight years ago, the group has opened for David Allan Coe, The Marshall Tucker Band, Johnny Cash tribute band Cash'd Out, and others. Since relocating back to Bakersfield two years ago, Houston has retained a steady live schedule with the band commuting when duty calls.

"When I was growing up I remember seeing Buck and Merle walking around town and country music was huge in Bakersfield. Today, you don't see as many live bands in the clubs, you have more karaoke and deejays."

The band's latest CD, "Johnny Drank Jack," encompasses many of Houston's personal influences with a sound popular in the alt-country and rockabilly hot spots of Orange County and San Diego. Some tattooed twang, a shot of punk rock, and a devil-may-care party attitude, it's a hellbilly hootenanny fueled by whiskey, spit and beer.

"We all come from the punk and metal scene, that's where our edgier sound comes from, but our country side comes from hearing Buck, Waylon and Merle. We like the old school guys. I would say put a little Hank and David Allan Coe in a blender and add a dash of Black Flag, blend on high for three minutes and then pour yourself a big 'o' glass of The Sickstring Outlaws."

Joining Houston onstage will be: Rizzy Rizborne, guitar; Jason Weiss, electric banjo; Drew Zollo, bass; Marcelo, drums; Marcy Houston, vocals.

"You can expect to have a good time from beginning to end. We bring the hellbilly ruckus."

Saturday's showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $5. Sandrini's is located at 1918 Eye St. For more information call 322-5200 or visit thesickstringoutlaws.com.

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