From their embellished jackets and pompadour-ed hair to their heartfelt music, Mark “Boots” Graham loves everything about singers Hank Williams, Conway Twitty and Buck Owens.
Compared to today’s styled-to-the-max country-pop stars, Graham, the frontman for the Red Deer band Ol’ Boots & The Hoots, by far prefers the old-time country artists you still see featured on late-night infomercials.
They were the real thing, said the singer, who performs with his band next week at the Boomtown Music Festival near Stettler. The outdoor event also features Ridley Bent, Tim Hus and a lineup of other bands, and runs Friday and Saturday, Sept. 5 and 6, at Ol’ MacDonalds Resort.
Graham feels there’s an honesty and a timelessness to old country tunes.
“Anybody growing up in Central Alberta would’ve had parents or grandparents who listened to it.”
He’s part of a local trio of musicians in Ol’ Boots & The Hoots, who are mostly under age 30 but have styled themselves after singers such as Williams, Merle Haggard or Roger Miller. Right off the top, this has meant adopting a certain showmanship.
“You’ve got to dress as fancy as you can, so people will believe in you,” said Graham, who was once told by an old-timer, “It’s called show business, so you’ve got to show them what you’ve got!”
He and his Hoots cohorts, stand-up bassist Sean VandenBrink and banjo-player/guitarist Tyler Allen, comply with this dictum by sporting matching suit jackets on stage. The only reason the outfits aren’t embellished is “I can’t afford it,” admitted Graham, who’d “love to have one of those fancy rhinestone suits.”
But the singer compensates for his lack of over-the-top adornment by yodelling like a pro on songs like Pinecone Cowboy and Cleo the Cat.
(How does one learn to yodel? “You go as far away from people who don’t want to hear yodelling as you can,” cracked VandenBrink.)
Like the hurtin’ country crooners who’ve gone before him, Graham can also soak some hankies with tear-jerkers such as No Good Woman and Big City Waltz. And he can make listeners crack some smiles with what a music critic has called his “wittily crafted, down-tempo western melodies.”
The group’s 2013 debut album, Pinecone Cowboy, got a rave review from EXCLAIM! Magazine, which called it “a cactus in the ass of modern, power-ballad country crooners that forgot the music of their grandfathers.”
Graham, Allen and VandenBrink have certainly not forgotten their forefathers. In fact, their band has entertained some of them — as well as an audience of other seniors, middle-aged folks, teens and children — at the Shady Grove Bluegrass Festival in Nanton earlier this month.
“Tyler’s grandparents were at the festival and his (guitarist) grandpa ended up jamming with us until midnight,” recalled VandenBrink, who enjoys the multi-generational appeal of “old-school” country music.
“I like everything about it. It brings me back to being a kid, as that’s what my grandparents listened to. … It’s honest music, real music.”
Oddly enough, VandenBrink and Graham started out playing in various punk bands.
Graham, who grew up in Clive, lived in Vancouver for a while and got the nickname ‘Boots’ because he refused to take off his cowboy boots even on Wreck Beach (which is a nudist beach).
He gave up punk after realizing “I had nothing to rebel against” and moved back to Central Alberta, where he met Allen, who’s from Olds, and VandenBrink, who’s from Bentley, on the local music scene.
The three, who gelled over their love of old-time country, have only been playing together for 11/2 years, but are already planning to record a second album this fall. It should be released in January.
“It’s going to be a lot more rockabilly and honkytonk,” promised VandenBrink, who noted Allen will play electric guitar to achieve more of a Sun Records vibe.
Fans who have followed the band’s live performances at local farmers’ markets and various clubs around Central Alberta, will recognize a more cohesive sound than on the first record, said VandenBrink, who feels the Ol’ Boots & The Hoots players are really relating now; “there’s more chemistry in the music.”
The trio looks forward to playing at the Boomtown Music Festival. “Festivals are always a chance for us to make more fans,” said VandenBrink.
For tickets, a schedule or more information on the festival, visit www.boomtownmusic.ca or call 403-742-6603.