In the 1930s, before blowing his steam whistle and hollering, “Let her go, boys!,” the Grand Ole Opry’s “Solemn Old Judge” used to coach performers to “keep it down to earth.” Though pop-country musicians have long abandoned that fundamental tenet, it’s consoling to know that Triangle artists Greg Hawks and the Tremblers still carry the torch. On their debut CD, Fool’s Paradise, Hawks and his Tremblers deliver 12 tracks of raw country straight from the heart, straight from the break.
Hawks’ roots in country music stretch back to his childhood growing up in Mount Airy, N.C., where country, bluegrass and old-time music are cultural standards. “My dad was a huge country music fan and I was sort of exposed to that music from the time I could ever hear music,” recalls Hawks. “I can remember bluegrass and country being played around all the time.”
His musical journey, however, wasn’t a straight shot. In the 1980s, like so many of the local country players (John Howie of the Two Dollar Pistols, Greg Hanson of Hooverville and Ryan Adams), Hawks took a tortuous detour through punk rock. “Yeah, I went through a period of rebellion, as anyone does. You don’t like to listen to what your parents like.” He embraced the ethos of that movement and learned to play drums, sitting in on jam sessions with various bands. Hawks says, “Expressing yourself through your music, be it an instrument or singing, that aspect of punk rock–that sort of total abandonment to your instrument or your song or whatever–it really interested me early on.”
By the late ’80s, Hawks began moving away from punk and started traveling all over the musical map. He was experimenting with a Velvet Underground sound and delving into roots music. His efforts beyond the straight-up punk genre, however, didn’t really gel until around 1989, when he learned to play guitar and started fronting a band called Bark with Ellen Grey, his wife at the time, who played bass and sang back-up. “A lot of people used to say that it was a cross between X and Crazy Horse,” remembers Hawks. Bark was a power rock trio with an emphasis on making noise, but it was a first step toward what was to become the incipient Tremblers.
The same obstinacy that led Hawks away from country as an adolescent brought him back to it as an adult. “All throughout that time, I never ever listened to Hank Williams and didn’t enjoy it,” he says of his punk rock days. “The more I kept going back to Hank, I found myself saying, ‘Gosh, I like George Jones too, and Merle Haggard.’ A lot of their music was similar to the early punk rock stuff. It was somewhat rebellious … and anti-establishment in the sense that, ‘We’re not going to do what Nashville wants us to do.’”
By 1993, the seeds of Fool’s Paradise were germinated. Focusing less on volume and more on lyrical content, Hawks started writing soulful, roots-bound, country songs. “I remember just making the decision that I was going to write these songs in that country vein whether anybody liked it or not,” he recalls. When Hawks moved to the Triangle from Charlotte in 1994, he was fully embracing the honky-tonk sound. Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet had caught his attention, as did the West Coast bands. “I really, really loved the ’60s West Coast country sound of Merle Haggard and the Strangers, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Wynn Stewart, all that that stuff. It’s got the elements of country but it’s sort of high-octane.” He reformed the Tremblers with Grey and recruited John Howie to play drums. At the same time, Hawks played rhythm guitar and sung harmony in Howie’s band, the Two Dollar Pistols. He played on the Pistols’ first CD, but then relocated briefly to West Virginia, putting the Tremblers on hiatus until he returned in 1997.
Once back in Chapel Hill, the Tremblers emerged again, this time with former Backslider Danny Kurtz on bass and backup vocals and Nate Stalfa on drums. The trio played their first gig in April 1999. Over the next 10 months, they laid down all the basic tracks for Fool’s Paradise in Kurtz’s living room using a simple home eight-track recorder. The rawness and energy of those recordings piqued the interest of the A&R folks at Yep Roc Records. “They recommended that we take it to Chris’ [Stamey] studio and let him work his magic on it, which we did,” says Hawks.
When they shifted venues from the Kurtz living room to Stamey’s studio, Hawks recruited former Trembler and fellow Pistol Michael Krause to play lead guitar. Under Stamey’s direction, the Tremblers made several additions, which introduced cameos by Tres Chicas’ Caitlin Cary, Tonya Lamm and Lynn Blakey, Phil Lee of Phil and the Sly Dogs, Greg Bell of the Backsliders and Skillet Gilmore, the drummer for every damn country band in the Triangle.
The end product, Fool’s Paradise, raises the bar for debut records. It embodies the edginess of punk rock, the soul of old school Opry, and the rockin’ backbeat of outlaw country. Tex-Mex influences shine through on “Half Way,” and Hawks’ interpretation of Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” adds grit that The Boss would be proud of. This CD captures the spontaneity of a live performance with the sheen of a masterful production. Loaded with loneliness, love, loss and denial, Fool’s Paradise is evidence of what Greg Hawks has long believed about his music:
“It’s about putting your whole body and soul and spirit into it,” he says, “and trying to do something that truly comes from you on some unique personal level.”