In 1956, Elvis was the coolest thing on the face of the planet. The slicked back hair. The sneer. The frantically played tunes that scared the hell out of almost everyone over the age of 30. Songs that mixed Southern Gospel music with R&B and "Hillbilly music" — a unique hybrid between Texas Swing and Appalachian Bluegrass. Honky tonkin', in other words.
Hillbilly music became known as Rockabilly over the years because — according to "popular" opinion — calling anything "hillbilly" lowered its cool quotient and IQ in one fell swoop.
Straw Boss would like to change your mind about that.
"Before they called Country (music) 'Country,' it was 'Hillbilly,' " says guitarist/vocalist Ed Vardiman. "Hillbilly music was this boogie-woogie version of Rockabilly (crossing over) into Country.
But they didn't have 'Country' (as we know it) because they hadn't done that big 'Nashville sound' yet. Actually, Cincinnati was big on Hillbilly music. Before Hillbilly had some sort of nasty connotation — you know, 'redneck,' that sort of thing — it was a style of music. Straight up."
Straw Boss was formed a year-and-a-half ago by the nucleus of Vardiman and stand-up bass player/singer Doug Osborn. Other members came and went until they arrived at the present lineup of Vardiman, Osborn, acoustic guitarist/vocalist John Bedinghaus, lap steel guitarist Damon Gray and drummer Paul Ellis. They came together as a result of a common love and respect for "pure" music.
"I used to play really heavy, aggressive Punk Rock years ago," explains Osborn. "Then I met a girl who had a huge pile of records. And I fell into the pile of records and listened to Rockabilly and Country albums for the next three years, and it changed my life (because the music) is pure."
Straw Boss' name comes from the Tennessee Ernie Ford song "Sixteen Tons" and it's also, "An old field/work-related term," according to Vardiman. "Someone who's in charge of your lowest group of workers. Certainly it's not the boss"
In other words, it's someone you put in a position because you just don't know what else to do with them. Which kind of illustrates Straw Boss' position in the overall music scene. Technically, you could call them a cover band, as their sets consist of two-thirds covers and one-third originals (Vardiman says that balance is going to change soon in favor of more originals). You could also technically call them "retro" because their look (hair slicked back on the sides, flat on top, '50s-styled clothing) and the music they play is based in another era. However, to label them as either of those things would be doing them something of a disservice. Some of the songs they play have been out of general circulation for such a long time that they seem new, especially when filtered through years of differing musical influences and styles. The look and sound aren't a pose; they're a lifestyle — if not life itself — to the band. When someone cites an influence such as, "the smell of diesel fuel when I was 3 years old," as Osborn does, they're not kidding around.
"It's sort of like looking at a classic car," says Vardiman explaining the appeal of the vintage Hillbilly look and sound. "It's just beautiful lines. The songs are like these perfect little three- and four-minute vignettes. It's the perfect short story. (The songs) are just drawn in this beautiful, classic style. I mean, who can argue with a '55 Chevy? It stands up — it was cool then, it was cool in the mid '60s, it still beats the pants off anything that's (being designed) now, no matter how swoopy they make it or how complicated or whatever."
To stay with Vardiman's auto analogy, yes, they might be a '55 Chevy in design, but they're a '55 Chevy with a CD player and GPS system, not restored but revitalized. These preservationists and interpreters are as fun and boisterous as a barn dance with spiked punch.
Who can argue with an '04 Straw Boss?
STRAW BOSS (straw-boss.com) performs Friday at Junie's Lounge in the Southgate House.