HONKY-TONK HEROES: The Barstool Romeos bring life back to an ailing country music wasteland
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Like a couple of old men bellied up to the bar of some forgotten dive on the edge of town, Andy Pirkle and Mike McGill give each other no quarter.
Insults that sound brutal to the unacquainted fly like beer bottles from a scorned lover’s raging fist as the two men who front the Barstool Romeos recall the first time they crossed paths.
“The first time I met Mike, he was so clean he looked like a used car salesman! He had on some penny loafers —” Pirkle begins.
McGill interrupts: “They were dress shoes!”
“He was this crazy friend of my sister’s husband, and he was a pretty good singer; other than that, I didn’t care much for him,” Pirkle finishes.
McGill’s turn: “The first time I met this guy, I felt sorry for him! He looked like a little bit of a mongoloid, kind of a water head, but I liked him alright.”
At this point, those who don’t know the pair might expect blows to be exchanged. Instead, the two old friends trail off into good-natured guffaws familiar to anyone who has a pal as close as a sibling. It’s on the foundation of such a friendship that the duo has built one of the unlikely success stories of the East Tennessee music scene: A country band that has more in common with Faron Young, Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell than anything played on contemporary country radio these days.
The guys — along with drummer (and Blount County boy) Eric Keeble and bass player Josh Sidman — will celebrate the release of their debut album, “Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal,” with a Blount County show at “The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson on March 16. No doubt, the venue will reverberate with all of the twang and thunder that epitomizes honky-tonk music.
In a time where Auto-Tune and Pro Tools are used to polish up country music into palatably slick arrangements hawked by guys in $200 pairs of jeans and boots picked out by label focus groups, it’s a refreshing change of pace. Not that McGill and Pirkle consider themselves in the same league as those Nashville boys, anyway.
“I get to listen to quite a bit of it at work, and it’s weird,” Pirkle said. “It’s all kinds of pop-country, and I don’t know the artists. It’s more like straight up rock ‘n’ roll than country, and bad rock ‘n’ roll at that.”
“I don’t know who the hell’s who, because none of them sound any different than the others,” McGill added. “It’s all about hot licks, compressed guitars and vocals and tunings. It’s just awful. I don’t want to know 300 licks; I want to know 300 songs, and when I play one on my guitar, everybody will know what that song is, because it’s identifiable.
“That’s what’s wrong with country today: It’s just not identifiable. It’s all about Skoal rings and tractors and hound dogs and fishing, and if I have to hear one more thing about me and my baby sucking face in the pickup truck, I might puke. Where’s the fearlessness these days?”
That’s the line of demarcation between the Romeos and others who claim to play country music but hedge their bets while doing so: The fear. The only trepidation McGill and Pirkle feel is what might happen if they don’t go for it, if they don’t put themselves out there and wring the necks of their guitars like they’re trying to choke a confession out of a member of al-Qaeda and sing until it feels like blood vessels are bursting in their lungs. Because as long as they give it everything they have, then whatever follows is secondary.
Both men have been a part of projects in the past that never lived up to their potential. Pirkle had been playing guitar off and on for years, but the punk outfit Speed Shifter was his first real band. Through his sister Sarah Pirkle — a Blount County-based fiddler and wife/musical partner of Jeff Barbra — he met his brother-in-law’s friend, McGill, who was toiling as a member of the Pigeon Forge-based bluegrass outfit White Oak Flats. Pirkle, who grew up listening to country music on WIVK-FM, had recently purchased an acoustic guitar thanks to a winning $500 lottery ticket, and one day he dropped by McGill’s place.
“We started listening to old Osborne Brothers, Louvin Brothers and Jimmie Rodgers records on my stereo with my old hippie neighbor,” McGill said. “Andy said, ‘Show me some of that stuff on guitar, and let’s sing some and play.’”
Wanting a change from the punk he’d been a part of with Speed Shifter, Pirkle showed McGill some songs he’d been writing and encouraged McGill to add a little electric guitar heft to the mix. As it so happened, McGill had been playing with Trisha Gene Brady (now of the Black Lillies) and slowly becoming accustomed to a bigger role as a guitarist.
“When it was just the two of us, we couldn’t have a kazoo solo in the middle of everything, so I had to stretch out there and play some leads,” McGill said. “I was kind of dabbling in it when Andy and I got together, so I just started trying it. I’d never had any experience on going electric, so when I got over to Andy’s to try it, he had foot pedals and buttons and knobs and switches on everything. I was a nervous wreck.”
“We plugged him directly into the amp, and he wouldn’t (mess) with the volume or the tone or nothing,” Pirkle laughed. “We’d found out pretty quickly that we were pretty good beer-drinking buddies, and you don’t come by those every day. And when we started playing guitar to go along with the drinking, everything started to happen.”
They started playing out as Andy Pirkle and the Axis of Evil, but after a few months, Sidman suggested the Barstool Romeos. They started working on “Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal” back in 2011, but the arduous task of transferring the bad-liver-and-a-broken-heart sound that comes across so well on stage to the studio proved to be a challenge. In area bars and venues, the four men reign like honky-tonk kings, sporting overalls and sequined shorts, baseball caps and cowboy hats, singing odes to “Cheap Bourbon Whiskey” and proclaiming their love of “Whiskey Women and Pain.” So genuine is “Twisted Steel” that one spin of the album seems to summon the aromas of old sweat, cheap beer and unfiltered cigarettes out of the speakers.
“That’s the thing about practicing and rehearsing and playing: You don’t really grasp the full effect of what it really sounds like,” McGill said. “We cut everything live as a group, and when I heard that first playback, it blew me away. I knew it was going to sound good, but I didn’t know it would sound that good. I could just hear the load of potential with it, and my brain’s imagination just exploded.”
For months, he tinkered with the final mixes to get it perfect, finally finishing the record late last year. Already, the Romeos have celebrated it with a Knoxville release show, and next weekend, they’ll do so at “The Shed.” Thanks to his involvement in the Drunk Uncles, McGill has plenty of friends in Blount County, he said, and the folks at “The Shed” have been fans of the Romeos almost since the beginning. (The group is scheduled to open for both Elizabeth Cook and Marty Stuart during the first two months of the venue’s upcoming concert season.)
“There’s lots of people in Blount County who like honky-tonk and rock ‘n’ roll and real country music,” McGill said. “It’s going to be a fun time, and if people want to come and have a good time and go to a real show, they need to come out.”
No doubt, the boys will trade some barbs back and forth — good-naturedly, of course — and they’ll pound a few beers and heckle their friends in the crowd just as much as their friends badger them in return. And then the music will begin.
The dancing will soon follow, and by the end of the night everyone in the joint, musicians and audience members alike, will unite in homage to a time when country music was the soundtrack to the lives of working-class men and women throughout the country.
“It’s like ping-pong: As long as we keep the ball in play, we can keep playing the game,” McGill said. “If you miss the ball or hit it off the table, you’ve got to stop. The goal is to just keep the ball in play so you can continue to do what you like to do and have fun with it. You’re not trying to out score each other or pull off a fancy shot or show everybody what you can do. You’re doing it all for the music.”