"Smoky Mountain Rain," Ronnie Milsap's monster country power ballad from the early '80s, is a great song. But it also represents the excesses that have plagued mainstream country for a long time: It's sentimental, it's overproduced, and, no matter how moving it might be, there's nothing complicated or unexpected at all about the story of a man who returns from the big city to find that his lover has left him. That simplicity, though, is also what makes it a great song. The story's barely a sketch, but it's redeemed by the obsessiveness of the narrator and the stark image of him out in the cold rain, calling her name and getting no response.
Nashville's Les Honky More Tonkies (the name comes from the band's lead singer, who goes by the stage name Les Honky) recorded "Smoky Mountain Rain" for their debut CD, Greatest Hits, and it's the best of several good moments on the record, the highlight of a collection of raw and ragged country-rock. Instead of making it a punked-up, amplified barroom stomper or a tongue-in-cheek pop-culture reference, they play it mostly straight, with neither undue reverence nor postmodern smarminess. Even though they all seem to understand the potential for cheekiness in their performance, the band's version is inspired, energetic and powerful.
"We all remember that song from when we were kids," says Les Honky drummer Joey Lonzo. "Covering Merle Haggard is too much of a cliché, and Johnny Cash—that's been done. 'Smoky Mountain Rain' is out of the cheesy country '80s, but it's a great song."
Les Honky More Tonkies has been together since the summer of 1998. Lonzo and guitarist Johnny Pyro, music industry insiders at their day jobs, had been backing up a string of singer-songwriters at some of the innumerable open-mike nights and round tables in Nashville. They worked up a handful of original songs and recruited Les Honky and a now-forgotten bass player and decided to play their own gigs.
"We started out on a Sunday night at a local club and it turned out to be a fun thing," says Lonzo. "A lot of people in the industry already knew us and they were all surprised, because we just go up there and rip and try to have a good time."
After a while, they began considering a record. It took about a year and a half of talking about it, but they finally went into a Murfreesboro studio last fall at the urging of the director of the small indie film Blackbirds and Blazers, who wanted to use their song "Black Cadillac" in his movie.
"We got out there and the vibe was so good that we said, 'Let's just go ahead and cut the whole record,'" Lonzo says. By that time Michigan native Bird Dawg had joined on bass and Pete Goatroper had been added as lead guitarist. "So we actually have a record now. We're all kind of surprised."
The record was recorded mostly live, with the vocals and a few lead guitar parts overdubbed. "You get that bleed from the snare drum that way," Lonzo says. "It has that live, loud, loose sound that we definitely wanted to go for. I think that makes it a timeless recording. It could have been done at any time. You can't pin it down and say that it was recorded at a specific time."
The career trajectory of Les Honky More Tonkies hasn't exactly been an accident, but there has been a lot of happenstance to get them where they are. The band members just sort of fell in together, drawn to each other by a shared affection for classic (and not-so-classic) country and big arena rock, and their over-the-top live shows were soon attracting attention in Nashville's hipper circles. They've played with some of their favorite bands, performing on a side stage before a Lynyrd Skynyrd stadium show and recently opening for roots-rock stalwarts Dash Rip Rock. It's been a fun ride so far, Lonzo says, and they just want to see where it goes from here.
"Every step of the way, every time we get to bigger shows, like when we played with Skynyrd, we say, 'OK, this is the pinnacle. We might as well quit after this,'" he says. "Everything we do is the coolest thing we've done so far. We're not going to take anything for granted." (Opening for sterling indie pop-rockers The Shazam, as they are in Knoxville, isn't too shabby, either.)
But they're not going to let any big ideas about where this might take them get in the way of a good time, either.
"We're just a little wild and off the hook," Lonzo says. "We don't strive to be perfect."