by David Gansen
LOCAL HOTSHOT COUNTRY STAR BOY HOWDY SLAMS ORVILLE PECK, REMEMBERS LYRICS
(This interview was conducted at Boy Howdy’s home studio, with an Instagram live stream broadcasting it live)
Boy Howdy: Let’s play some Keith Whitley
David Gansen: Who’s Keith Whitley?
BH: This is Keith Whitley (plays)
DG: Yeah. I mean, what should I know about him?
BH: He died pretty young, from drinking. Like 24 I think?
DG: Is he typical of what country sounded like in the 80s?
BH:Yeah. He was like, top of his game in this era. He started off as a bluegrass guy.
DG: Transitioned due to popularity pressures?
BH:And technology I think. Yeah, it’s a little more pop-oriented. Pop rock. But it’s, you know, that old-time country. He’s got that smooth baritone.
DG: Sounds pretty lame.
BH:Well who are you spinning these days?
DG: I’m spinning the hot names that I feel are deserving.
DG: Orville Peck, for one.
BH:You know, he’s not really country.
DG: Not really country?
BH:He may wear a cowboy hat--
DG: He’s a new face. It’s a new name, but the same old sound.
BH: --Dare I say, he’s GQ country.
DG: GQ country?
BH:Hm hmm. Focused on the fashion, too fashion-forward. But I can’t remember a single one of his songs. Granted, I haven’t listened to any of them.
DG: See, you talk “too fashion-forward” but Boy Howdy is famous in the Appleton live music scene for dressing quite flamboyantly at his shows. Something that Orville Peck might do. What have you got to say to that?
BH: I would say that, Orville Peck is putting on a performance. Boy Howdy is a real cowboy. He’s the real deal. Real as it gets.
DG: So you got an album out, you’ve been gigging relentlessly, you’ve been touring here and there. Been busy. Not only releasing your own music, you’ve got your own—would you call it a label? Boy Howdy Productions has a few acts under your umbrella.
BH: Yeah, Boy Howdy Productions has come about in recent years. It’s an idea I’ve been throwin around for quite some time. I just figured, you know, Boy Howdy has got so many connections and they’re such great acts.
DG: And so you wanted a piece of them, I get it.
BH: And he’s got a hand in all of it. Instead of running around getting people, checking on my demo, putting it into a record, I do it myself.
DG: So, not just the music side, but the business side too.
BH: I’m a businessman.
DG: Okay. Boy Howdy is more of a businessman than a musician?
BH: Boy Howdy does it all.
DG: Who would win in a fight: you or Bob Dylan?
BH: That guy’s got little twig-boy arms.
DG: Bob Dylan in his prime. You’re not exactly a mountain of a man, yourself.
BH: Well what are you saying? You saying I couldn’t take Bob Dylan in his prime?
DG: I’m just asking the question here. BH: Of course.
DG: What do you do in the morning? Anything weird?
BH: You want me to describe my morning?
BH: Wake up next to my woman. Give her a good morning kiss. Put on my slippers and my robe. Pet the cat. Grind up 30 grams of coffee. Do a Kalita Wave pour-over, enough coffee for me and my woman. Then she gets up and drinks coffee with me.
DG: When did you lose your virginity?
BH: I was 18.
DG: Care to elaborate?
BH: Not really.
DG: Lot of listeners. They’re thirsty, they want to know.
BH: I’ll keep that between me and my lovers. So as I was saying before you interrupted me, I feed the cats. Wet food for Mogwai, but only a taste of it for Louie, because she—you don’t want to know. The litterbox does not look very good afterwards with too much wet food.
DG: Alright, that’s disgusting. But very Essential Country of you. I want to ask you about the album art from your last release. I can show it to you if you forgot what it looks like. Very steamy. Do you consider yourself a sex symbol? And I’m speaking to Boy Howdy the businessman, I want to clarify.
BH: Let me tell you something: sex sells. When I first put that album cover on the internet...
DG: Bare chested, bare stomach.
BH: It got the biggest reaction on social media of all my posts. Haven’t had that good of a reaction since. I mean, you can’t deny the facts.
DG: Do you consider yourself an outlaw?
BH: (lights a joint) Oh yeah.
DG: Specifically which rules do you not like?
BH: Number one right here (joint). Number two? The rules of the road. But you gotta know em. You gotta know the rules before you break em.
DG: So as I was saying, you keep your cards close to your chest. In fact, during our discussions leading up to this I asked you for lyric sheets that I could pull quotes from and you said, “I don’t have any.” Were you lying or are all the lyrics stored in your head?
BH: Well I write them down here and there, but I usually don’t hold on to them. I’ll use them to get them out of my head, but then it’s out. I was using sheet music, tabs, my ears, and things just kind of stick.
DG: Oh my god.
BH: I worship one god. And that god is me. (the stream ends as Instagram has detected unlicensed music being played)
BH: Ah, they shut me down for music.
DG: The bots always get you eventually. What’s your favorite food?
BH: Get the fuck out of here.
DG: Give me an answer.
ON ESSENTIAL COUNTRY, THE PEDAL STEEL, AND OLD STUFF
DG: Boy Howdy, I apologize for the last interview. I was chasing headlines and big reactions with some of those questions and they crossed a line. I and the entire music media industrial complex have taken a hard look at our behavior and made steps to change. If you’re ok to proceed, I would like to ask you questions that seek to understand your music than make a spectacle of your stardom.
BH: That’s alright, Dave. These days you just gotta agree to disagree.
DG: I couldn’t agree more. That leads me into a question about your purpose of unity?
BH: Purpose of unity?
DG: That and the urge to express your romantic desires. For example, the song “Essential Country”---
BH: ---Well that song is for the essential workers.
DG: Right, and that choice strikes me as both timely and very powerful. Even though the theme is only used on one song, it kind of stands above the rest as the biggest piece of the album’s message.
BH: It is the title track.
So is that Boy Howdy’s role in the world?
BH: To unite? Yeah, I suppose. I don’t think of myself as a world leader. Too much responsibility.
DG: Mm hmm. But a community leader?
BH: I think it’s just best to lead by example. You do good, others do good. You know? If you like what you do.
DG: I like that. The title track is directed at the truck drivers, the grocery store stockers, the honky tonkers. Who is Boy Howdy hoping to reach?
BH: Yeah that song is for the working class folk, just doing what they can. You know, a lot of people look at rock stars and movie stars—I saw someone at the bar today, a business guy. The kind of guy I wouldn’t necessarily strike up a conversation with, probably don’t have much in common. But I look across the bar and he’s singing every word to the song. Every song that comes on he’s mouthing the words to himself.
DG: Like he’s a secret fan.
BH: Like he loves music. But he’s dressed to the nines, he’s got a couple thousand dollars on. He looks good. Something inside of him, wishes he was a rock star. So I’m gonna be that for people. That’s what I wanted when I was a kid. It’s my language, it’s the way I speak to people.
DG: Through music? BH: Yeah.
DG: And you wanted to say what with this album?
BH: Hold on.
DG: Hold on?
BH: Because there’s more Boy Howdy.
DG: What do you think country music needs?
BH: You know, you mentioned Orville Peck earlier. Seems like there’s a lot of fashion going on. The Rhinestone Cowboys, Nudie Suits. (“Nudie suits are flamboyant, rhinestone-encrusted cowboy outfits worn by country-western singers beginning in the 1950s. “ and they are also a New Zealand band) But it would be good to see more rugged, not mountain man country, but like, give me a normal guy just singing. Fashion has always been a part of singing but I’m trying to give a breath of fresh air on this.
DG: Do you see patterns in country music, or even a historical arc?
BH: I think tradition is a big part of country music.
DG: Do you think that stays the same, or does it ebb and flow?
BH: I mean, as with any genre, you’ll find your benders and breakers, people pushing the envelope. Doing weird shit. But then you have people just—I’ve been listening to Charlie Crockett a lot. He’s just singing like the old guys did it.
DG: Crooning away.
BH: Yep. He’s one of my favorites.
DG: Is he a slide guitar? Or steel guitar? Steel pedal guitar.
BH: Pedal steel guitar.
DG: Of course. Do all your favorites have pedal steel guitars? I really like--
BH: I play the pedal steel, you know right?
DG: Yes you do, and very well. Do you think that there will ever be a time that Boy Howdy gets tired of pedal steel guitar? Or will that be a mainstay?
BH: When I perform as Boy Howdy, I’ve got my steel players. Me, I play the six string. You know, I love the instrument. One of the reasons I love country music so much is the pedal steel guitar.
DG: So, would it be fair to say that among the goals in creating the album, in the spirit of “write what you wish existed”, that you wanted it to have a big presence of that instrument?
BH: I don’t know. I was just trying to go for a strictly-country record. They all ended up with the pedal steel. I play pedal steel for Dusk, that was why I learned it in the first place. Then the pandemic hit and I was home alone, and I was like “alright, Boy Howdy is goin’ solo.” That’s when I started the record.
DG: So before, Boy Howdy was--
BH: --playing steel in Dusk.
DG: Okay, that was the character on stage. What are Boy Howdy’s origins? Because the only song that offers a biographical narrative of Boy Howdy is “Cowboy Key” that starts off with “it was the end, my time was up down at the station.” And in the music video, he just appears out of the snow with a guitar in his hand. Is this a factual telling of how Boy Howdy came into existence?
BH: Boy Howdy grew up in what was an old cheese factory. So that’s the first line, “When I got out, I went back home, to the factory.” The cheese factory. So I was leaving a relationship, where we lived in an old police station, “the station.”
DG: Were you kicked out?
BH: I left. Wasn’t my place. Went back home. And I fell in love.
DG: That’s what home can do. And was that song the first song written for the album?
BH: No. I wrote “Baby, Sweet Darlin” when I was 16 years old.
DG: My god. Is it about a different woman? BH: See, that one was written from the perspective of an old man. DG: I love that.
BH: The lyrics go
Baby, sweet darlin’
won’t you come on home to me?
Baby, sweet darlin’
I’ll be home waitin’ for you.
‘Cause you know, you’re part of my life now
And I’ll always be there for you.
So baby, won’t you come on home, sit next to Papa,
And watch some good ole color TV?
DG: There you go again making the new feel old. Does your affinity for old things stop at records? Clearly not, all of your music equipment, seems like you make a point to pick them as old as possible.
BH: Well, all the technology was really simple back then. Therefore, it was made to last. And then you get these new digital things that have these little tiny microchips and you can’t go and replace by hand.
DG: You like fixing your own stuff. BH: Oh, yeah. You can’t beat it.
DG: It’s not just liking old stuff for old stuff’s sake?
BH: It was built better. Of course, there’s good new stuff. These microphones are pretty new, I have an iPhone.
DG: Which one is that? BH: SE. I think it’s a 5 or 6.
DG: You know, that could be considered pretty ancient by now.
BH: Not as old as this mixer. Or these records.
DG: So this is kind of a small detail, but on the album art of Essential Country. I noticed the $1 price tag on the corner, real old-timey record store kind of style. Backstory for me: when my grandfather died we were going through his stuff in his basement, and he had a lot of country records. I was getting into records at the time, and I took them all home, wanting to see if he had any valuable ones. It turns out he was so cheap, everything was a Greatest Hits this or that, released by Budget Music Company. But a lot of them had the same kind of price tag in the corner. I’m not calling your music cheap, for me it both conveyed the working class economics of music purchasing and the time/place of the sound you fit into.
BH: I’m a record collector. And I go for the dollar bin. That’s the first place you find me in the record shop, and that’s where you find the good stuff. If you’ve got the patience to dig into a crate of records, go “hey this sounds cool,” that’s where a lot of my country records came from. Because around here, a lot of people were getting rid of their grandpa’s records and dumped ‘em off at the thrift shop. That’s what I grew up doing.
DG: Is that how you got into country music?
BH: Yeah, my mom was into country. She grew up listening to it with my grandpa, grandma, their family. I remember watching HeeHaw on Saturday nights...
DG: Is that a show?
BH: Yeah it’s like a hillbilly SNL. With country artists as the musical act.
DG: What do you remember about that?
BH: You have Buck Owens and Roy Clark as the hosts, they do the theme song every night, they introduce all the acts, there’s all these different characters. You get to see all the country stars of the 60s and 70s. They’re not actually playing, but they’re singing. Only sometimes with a band. But the jokes are so bad... that they’re good. It’s one of the sketches actually. “That’s bad.” “No, that’s good!” And they say why it’s good. “No that’s bad.” “That’s Hee Haw.”
DG: So is that how you saw it when you were watching it?
BH: When I was a kid, I liked the show visually and because my mom liked it. Some of the jokes I didn’t get. But it was corny and fun. She liked to listen to Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett. Now I could handle Lyle, but I was not a fan of Dwight.
DG: And what’s the difference for those who don’t know? Which of course is not me.
BH: Dwight plays honky tonk. Lyle Lovett is smooth. He’s got a smooth voice, a big band, it’s kind of jazzy. It’s not really country, but they’re in similar circles. Because of Dwight Yoakam, it took me a while to really get it. When I was a kid, my older brother was in the jazz band, so I grew up listening to a lot of that and a lot of Pink Floyd. I developed my own taste, and later was like, “Oh, I get it now.”
DG: You do include a mix of tastes. Under the Boy Howdy Productions label, you’re the only country artist. Others are California rock or more grungy indie rock.
BH: Boy Howdy likes to cover it all. Keeps it interesting.
DG: Would you say you’re part of this wave of... not city-living young people but... country fans emerging from different demographics than they used to, historically? Obviously, you came through your own path that naturally led you here, but do you consider yourself ahead of the curve in that regard.
BH: I don’t think I’m ahead of the curve, just trying to ride the curve. Trying to keep it real.
DG: You saw something real in the country music.
BH: I mean, it grew on me the older I got. You don’t really hear young people singing about 40 years of heartache, drinking and shit. I was into the Beatles and Beach Boys when I was a kid. Fun, pop rock.
DG: You sing about diners, you sing about factories. You sing about that good ol’ country livin’. Many of the songs are clearly pointed to some romantic recipient. Usually in a longing way, but you also say things about alcohol and coming together as a community. But a lot of alcohol as well.
BH: Well, it’s a tradition in country music. Every country record has a drinking song. My approach is, you know, it comes from a deeper place, related to pain. I think putting that in country songs isn’t done enough. We’re recording this on today St. Patrick’s Day. What’s everyone doing? Drinking around a green river.
DG: Some of them are.
BH: That ain’t for me. Not this cowboy.
DG: Alright, not this cowboy.
BH: Keith Whitley, died 34 or 35 from drinking. Causes a lot of pain.
DG: Where does it hurt in Boy Howdy?
BH: Well, it’s you know, it’s in the family. It’s broken up my family. It’s brought us closer together, because of the pain, so it
hits close to home. And it’s a powerful drug. And it’s normal to, especially living here in Wisconsin, to have 3 beers a day and think you don’t have a problem.
DG: Darn right. That was such an inspiring message what I was hearing on the title track “Essential Country,” this feeling for others’ pain. Country music feels to me like a longtime tradition of being the only way for, men especially, to reveal their pain and for it to be turned into something that’s actually expressed.
BH: That’s men and women. Country music, you know, tells a story. It’s oftentimes not very obscure. It’s pretty straight to the point, describing an experience, a character, a connection. Everyone can relate. I don’t know, I try not to get too fancy with my songs. Keep it simple, that’s who I am.
DG: It’s more easily perceived, digested, connected to that way I suppose. Do you find yourself more often writing your story or someone else’s story?
BH: Depends on the song, really. Sometimes you want to get away from yourself. You get stuck in a rut thinking, “ugh, is this song supposed to mean something to me?” I mean, it could. Doesn’t have to. Just tell a story. Everyone who listens to the songs will come up with their own meaning. But sometimes you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and write from a different perspective.
DG: So it’s less about them being your own shoes and more them being somebody’s shoes. Somebody that feels real and fleshed out.
BH: And maybe they’re not wearing any shoes at all.
ON BOY HOWDY PRODUCTIONS LABEL, THE UPCOMING RELEASES, AND TODAY’S BUSINESS OF MUSIC
DG: When is the next album due?
BH: I haven’t recorded it yet, so probably not for a while. Probably after the next Boy Howdy label release of the summer. So fall or winter.
DG: Do you want to talk a bit about songs in the works?
BH: As you know, I’ve got my live band, the Electric Ranch Hands. We’ve been doing a lot of shows.
DG: Well attended shows.
BH: They’re the best musicians I know around here. My pedal steel mentor, Frank Anderson, playing steel in the group. We’ve got Amos and Ridley from Dusk holding it down in the rhythm section, Sam and Alex from Hang Ten. Up-and-coming boy band from the area.
DG: I didn’t know about that.
BH: They’re a hot new group. Check out their new EP.
DG: Wisconsin hot new boy band with California sound?
BH: Yep, that’s Hang Ten. Available on all streaming services.
DG: Is Boy Howdy their boss?
BH: No, but he knows ‘em. They’re a tight crew. They’re California boys, you know, Hollywood. Which I’ve, er, dabbled---
DG: Right. Boy Howdy’s been known to disco boogie too.
DG: So does that mean other sounds will find themselves on the upcoming record?
BH: I think I’m going to branch out my songwriting a bit. Let the Ranch Hands take a little more of the arrangement side. It’ll be a more collaborative record. I’ll have the whole live band for that one.
DG: As in, how many songs were the whole live band on Essential Country.
BH: That was mostly me. Bits and pieces here and there.
DG: So a bigger sound?
BH: But Ridley, me, Sam, and Alex are all on the record here and there. Got my brother Jake on the record, Cousin Arthur. He’s a newcomer on the Boy Howdy label. He’s not just my cousin, he’s everyone’s cousin.
DG: That’s an impressive lineup. I’ve been seeing him around at your shows.
BH: Yeah he’s got a YouTube page, got a music video that came out: “Keepsakes”, Cousin Arthur. His debut will be coming out this August.
DG: That’s exciting.
BH: Also on the label we got Free Dirt, former member of the Blue Heels, which was a big inspiration on Boy Howdy in his youth. Robbie Schiller approached me to record their first record. That was an earlier Boy Howdy production previous to the official announcement of the label. They self-released that record. But this new one has got 12 new songs, we’re gonna release it in May. It should be a good one, a step up from the last record.
DG: May? BH: This May.
DG: That’s soon. Where did you get that hat?
BH: This is my Grandpa Skip’s hat. My dad’s dad. He spent a lot of time in Texas.
DG: What did he use that hat for?
BH: Style. What else do you use a hat for?
DG: Well my grandpa had a particular outfit for Dancing Night.
BH: Well he had a pin on here in the shape of Texas. Got one on it now with the feathered design that my old lady did.
BH: You can get one at BoyHowdyProd--- DG: You can get a hat?
BH: No, you can get a pin. For 10 bucks. Get in my DM’s, I’ll send one over. Or Boy Howdy on Bandcamp.
DG: So, talking business of music now, are you similar to most artists these days in...
BH: Losing money? Yessir. You gotta spend money to make money.
DG: That’s right. So merch is a good way to support the struggling artist?
BH: Or just, you know, giving them money directly.
DG: Give your local artists money.
BH: But yeah, buy their physical goods. Especially their music. You know, the internet is getting more and more regulated. Pretty soon, you won’t have these streaming services that just give you music for free.
DG: You think so?
BH: I don’t know. Can’t be like this forever. We’ll see