It’s not that Bakersfield enjoys breaking the rules. It’s just that some rules are made to be broken.
Buck and Merle did it in the ‘60s and ‘70s -- and in the late 1990s, Bakersfield-based Big House did it again when the band exploded on the scene with a style of “soul country” that rejected the mud-on-your-tires, Bud-in-your-hand bro country that would come to dominate the genre in the early 21st century.
Two decades after the formation of Big House, the band is getting together again, albeit in a slightly altered lineup, for two anniversary shows Nov. 27 and 28 at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.
“We’re going to play the first album front to back, as well as some of our later stuff,” said Monty Byrom, a primary songwriter, lead vocalist and one of the group’s three guitarists.
“It’s going to be good,” he promised, and if a nighttime rehearsal held last week in northwest Bakersfield was any indication, Byrom was not blowing smoke.
The rehearsal, held at a home just west of town, included Byrom’s brother, Tanner Byrom on drums, Sonny California on harmonica and Chuck Seaton on guitar.
Original bassist Ron Mitchell and guitarist-keyboard player David Neuhauser have been replaced by Ray Sadolsky on bass, Chris Neufeld on keys, and Kyle Appleton on guitar and lap-slide guitar. Seaton, Sadolsky and Neufeld all supply background vocals, but Neufeld’s soaring, precise pitch is one of the key components in this new lineup.
“We’re excited about what we’re hearing,” said Seaton, who played on the band’s self-titled debut album in 1997 and most of the later recordings.
The first album was the group’s most successful, peaking at No. 33 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, while “Cold Outside” peaked at No. 30 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart.
Now the songs are coming alive again, and you can see the magic in the eyes of the players as emotions and memories are resurrected along with the music.
“The harmonies are up a notch and so is the music,” Seaton said. “We’ve never actually heard it like this before.”
For one thing, these guys have never stopped playing music. They’re seasoned musicians. There’s an ease to their playing that can only come from thousands of hours of rehearsal and performance -- a lifetime on stage. And that easiness allows them to relax, to let the music flow, and to enjoy it as it washes over everyone in the room like aged whiskey mixed with holy water.
Something of a wunderkind on the guitar, Appleton’s addition to the lineup was a no-brainer. He’s already been invited to play with the Palace’s house band, the Buckeroos, and every working musician in town knows his name.
“It really means a lot to me to be asked to do this,” said Appleton, who, at age 31 is the youngest in the Big House lineup. “I really have a lot of respect for these guys.”
As the rehearsal kicked off with the rocker “You Ain’t Lonely Yet,” Tanner set the tempo on his hi-hat, as guitars joined in. Sonny California supplied bluesy fills between the lyrics as did Appleton on lap slide.
The driving beat of “Cold Outside” came next, followed by the smoky, swampy humidity of “Amarillo,” one of the best tunes on any Big House record.
One by one, they played the 11 songs on the album and some extras, including the traditional, “I Know You Rider,” a favorite on 2008’s “Never Ending Train.”
Three hours later, tired but elated, the musicians knew they were ready.