october 2009

When Something's Right, It's Flat Right

From Sweet Sunny South to Duck Duck Grey Duck to Honey Don't, Bill Powers and Shelley Gray Make Sweet Music Together

By David McGee

Honey Don't is a multi-layed, multi-textured entity build on the rock-solid foundation of two people's love for each other and for a specific style of music. This couple, gentle souls both blessed with abundant good humor and common sense, are not only musicians together, but husband and wife, father and mother to two children, around whom their world revolves. They have fashioned a career path based on their responsibilities as parents, first, and professional advancement second. This bond of love informs every aspect of their lives; its warmth and selflessness infuses their music and conversation, and from it exudes a bracing humanity, an accentuation of the positive, a rejection of the negative. It all goes down easy, and welcomes all to its house. To luxuriate in the gentle good vibes of Honey Don't soothing melodies and comforting rhythms is to find your way home. Or to get back to where you once belonged.

Honey Don't is a band, with Greg Schochet on mandolin and Ryan Drickey on fiddle, excellent players both, but its Alpha and Omega are married partners Bill Powers and Shelley Gray, he a Mississippi native, she originally from Minnesota, both transplanted now to the idyllic, mountainous beauty of southern Colorado, in the lively, artist-friendly burgh of Paonia. How they wound up there pretty much involves how they became Honey Don't. Or rather, Duck Duck Grey Duck. That is, Sweet Sunny South. Powers and Grey surface in all the aforementioned incarnations; how frequently depends on the focus at the moment. Right now, Honey Don't is starting to make some Americana waves on radio and in concert with its self-titled debut album, so Sweet Sunny South and Duck Duck Grey Duck of necessity go on hiatus.

"Honey Don't was something just different enough to put us in a different realm, kind of where we wanted to be," Powers explains in his wry, direct way (that he has a radio-friendly voice is about perfect, since he is also an on-air personality for the local NPR affiliate, KVNE, in a free-form format that allows him to play pretty much whatever type of music he wants, and so he does, ranging from American to blues to rock to jazz and on). "After doing the bluegrass thing, IBMA and all of that, I just felt like I didn't resonate with that as much. I did at one time, but not as much now. So I really wanted to explore the Americana realm. I still love great bluegrass, I love Americana, I love it all, but I really wanted to step a foot in Americana because that's what I was listening to and taking in a lot. What I want to do the next time we record is push through and get a little more electricity happening with the record—not too much. I don't want to change completely, by any means, but just try to get through what I originally wanted to do with this. So we're thinking of bringing a little of that Silvertone Devils sound into Honey Don't. Stretch it a little bit more even. 

Honey Don't (Bill Powers, Shelley Gray, Greg Schochet), 'You Can't Get Your Kicks On Route 66'

Oh, yes—the Silvertone Devils, yet another of Powers's musical pursuits, this one just getting off the ground and, as his comment above suggests, bringing a hard-edged sound by way of electrified rock 'n' roll.

An answer to the question of how the Silvertone Devils figure into this musical equation elicits the kind of snappy dialogue between Powers and Gray that you might expect to find in a Preston Sturges film. Except it goes on all the time and the characters are real. For instance:

Powers: "I know people think I'm crazy or we're crazy for doing so much. Sweet Sunny South got to the point where we needed to stop in order to assess things, and that kind of had to do with the kids. And here we kind of get a break and the next thing you know we start two other bands. The thing is, the Silvertone Devils was never something I wanted to take anywhere. It really had to do with the fact that I've been playing music in some form for a long time. I played in garage bands early on in my music career, before getting to bluegrass, and bluegrass felt really good to me. None of this machinery and electronics between me and just playing. Part of that is that I'm not really good at all that stuff. I can barely hook up a VCR—"

Gray: "They don't have those anymore."

Powers: "So back to the Silvertone Devils... I realized I had been playing for seven or eight years with this band, Sweet Sunny South, but I didn't want to think I only knew how to do this one thing, and take me out of that and I'm a fish out of water. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to educate myself on how to play other kinds of music. I feel like I had gained some maturity and some more skills in playing music since the garage rock band days, and I was more interested in singing; back then it was just playing and playing and playing. We didn't have a PA—hell, we didn't have microphones, because most music was instrumental and exploratory. So I wanted to learn.

"Also I've never felt my voice is in its best place singing to the condenser microphone, because I don't have a particularly strong voice. I didn't grow up singing a whole lot, and I wreck my voice a lot. In playing with Sweet Sunny South I only have a limited amount of time, especially if it's later in the evening when we play, because I'm a talker, I talk too much-"

Gray: "I don't know why you say that..."

Powers: "My voice is dry and it's hard on my voice to do that. So when I got a chance to start singing to a Shure 57, I found that's very comfortable for me and I get a different quality of my voice coming out. That felt really good; it wasn't like screaming. I feel like a lot of times with Sweet Sunny South I'm singing but it's not particularly musical. And with being able to sing to an individual mic, you can turn that up; you can't turn up condenser mics. We'd always have it turned up as far as it could go without feeding back to try to be loud enough. There could be subtlety coming in.

"So the Silvertone Devils was a desire to just change up what I was doing and to educate myself, to play with a drummer-hadn't played with a drummer, well I oughta learn how to do that. Some of the more recent comments I've had are from people saying that's their favorite thing of all we're doing, the Silvertone Devils. I think it's because it's way different from what we've been doing, not because people like it more or less, but just that it's interesting and different."

Sweet Sunny South, 'Mississippi'

Gray: The way I see how all this is, Bill, you are just extremely absorbed into music—thinking about it 24/7, writing in your head all the time, just constantly churning musically. You can't expect other people necessarily to be on that same plane, constantly thinking nothing about playing and wanting to do that all the time. So this way he gets a little of all these different venues to express himself musically. Sweet Sunny South has definitely carved its niche, and it does its thing, gets great response and we love doing it. Now these other projects are exploring other sides of what you've got going on all the time. "

Powers: "What about you, Shelley?"

Gray: (laughs) "Well, what does that say about me? I don't know."

Okay, let's get the timeline straightened out. After graduating from high school, Powers moves from his Cleveland, Mississippi, home town to California, where he lives with his father and attends Santa Monica Community College, where he learns to play guitar-

Gray: "And promptly drops out."

When his father is transferred to Austin, young Bill accompanies him, enrolling in Austin Community College—"trying to get my grades up. I wasn't the best high school student," Powers notes with understood understatement—with the aim of matriculating to the University of Texas at Austin.

At home in Paonia: 'Either one of us would have a hard time without the other person,' says Gray.

Following an unsettling pattern, Powers drops out of UT Austin. "I lost interest right when I got into UT. I got kind of a disdain for media and television. I had sold my TV and I didn't want anything to do with it. I wasn't seeing movies. I wanted to make movies for awhile, then I lost interest. I was floundering. I had been coming to Colorado for summertimes, working for some folks ever since I graduated from high school. It would get me out of Austin in the summer, which was great. I asked if I could come up and work full time because I just didn't know what I was doing in school anymore. I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I had gotten to the place I was striving for and had lost interest by then. What a weird place to be. So I checked out and found out I really enjoyed working in the wood shop, and that's what I did for awhile."

That was 1992. Not long after planting himself in Redstone, CO, full time did he meet Shelley Gray, who was coming through with a girlfriend from Minnesota on "a summertime adventure."

Gray: "My girlfriend and I wanted to do something, and she had a high school friend whose family had a cabin out here, and they said we could come and stay. So we drove out and showed up in Marble, Colorado, which is even more remote, and spent the summer there, which is when Bill and I met. I just fell in love and there was no way I wanted to leave."

Powers: "Not with me. "

Gray:" Yeah, I didn't fall in love with Bill at that point."

Powers: "I was definitely marginal. In fact, she liked Colorado more than me. "

She liked Colorado so much, in fact, that when Powers wanted to move back to Austin—"I had good friends there, I liked it there and I missed it"—Gray nixed the idea out of hand.

"It was September, it was hot!" Gray exclaims. "I was like, 'No way.' I had just got to Colorado. I was not about to turn around and go back to humidity."

"I decided not to go to Austin without Shelley," Powers says. "From Redstone the only direction we could go was to Carbondale or Glenwood, which is going closer to Aspen, and we had already been priced out of there. I didn't really have a job; I just didn't know what I was going to do. So instead we went south and came over to Paonia. There wasn't that much of a destination to move to; there wasn't that much to do. You had to be either a coal miner...you had to be creative to figure out what you were going to do to make a living. But the housing was cheap, and I had a motorcycle that was pretty much the most valuable thing I owned. It was a Harley, and I sold that and some money my grandmother gave me was our down payment for the house. We paid something like $67,000 for our house."

There was marriage, there were children and there was Sweet Sunny South, at first. SSS has built up a solid following on the bluegrass and roots music circuit, as fans have taken to the group's good-natured blend of old-time string music and traditional country and country blues as captured best on the album Showtime. A quartet, SSS features Powers on mandolin and plectrum banjo, Gray on bass, Rob Miller on guitar and Cory Obert on fiddle. For Powers this was the start of a journey he had envisioned since becoming enraptured by the guitar. For Gray, it literally was the beginning of her musical ambitions. She came from Minnesota with her musicianship limited to a two-year stint playing clarinet in a school band, and otherwise being expert in tap dancing. "When I picked up the bass it was as if I was applying what I knew how to do with my feet to my fingers; the percussive aspect of tap dancing seemed to help a lot with playing the bass," she observes, somewhat sheepishly.

But she didn't play the bass until about three months prior to joining Sweet Sunny South. Her ambition to do so was fueled by seeing Bryn Davies playing the instrument in Peter Rowan's band. "I hadn't seen a girl playing the bass before and I thought the instrument was amazing. From there my bass playing style evolved out of the basics. I'm pretty elementary in my style. It's nothing fancy that I do, other than I hold the beat pretty well. People seem to like that."

Honey Don't performs Bill Powers' 'Honey Don't'

However, Sweet Sunny South had a bass player, a good bass player, and had even taken second place at Rockygrass. But Gray had something special going for her that all the other band members recognized, and soon she was in the lineup. "It felt very different playing with her than it did with our Sweet Sunny South bass player-he could definitely play, he had rhythm, he could do it, but she had really strong rhythm, enough to where we could really feel that," Powers says. "If we were going to continue with the band, we had to get more serious about it, bring Shelley in."

That configuration of Sweet Sunny South led to the formation of the SSS offshoot, Duck Duck Grey Duck, named after a children's game and aiming its music directly at young 'uns. DDGD has recorded one CD of children's songs coupled with some Dr. Seuss stories the band set to music. "It's jug band music, basically, a washboard, kazoos, banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass, and we all sing," says Powers. "We sing some of our favorite Sesame Street songs, like '10' and '12.' Apparently children and adults love the CD, so we could have a whole other career if we weren't so interested in doing what we're trying to do."

But there was an underlying purpose in Duck Duck Grey Duck's existence, as Gray is quick to point out: "We started the whole thing because we had these young kids and I had a teaching background and it was an interest. Now our kids are growing up and they're learning instruments and starting to participate and join in with us. We're really hoping to get it to the point where that's something they can do for fun with us."

The heart of the matter now is that thing Powers referred to as "doing what we're trying to do," meaning Honey Don't. Among Sweet Sunny South CDs Showtime stands out as an exceedingly fine record full of inspired playing and impressive original songs, most by Powers. A couple of its songs are directly inspired by Paonia, and the band members folksy repartee along the way gives it a feel of Riders In the Sky gone bluegrass. But even as SSS was growing and gaining velocity, other issues were looming, stemming from parents determined to be parents full time, not on an itinerant basis when they were off the road.

"They like coming with us, they like what we do," Powers says of the couple's offspring. "There was a time when we weren't sure we could continue, and we took a break from Sweet Sunny South—it was kind of about us feeling like we weren't doing right by the kids. And when they understood, through our conversations, that we were talking about not playing in the band anymore, they were like, 'You can't not play in the band anymore. The band has to play!' We were like, 'It's interesting you feel that way because we assumed that that was a pain in your butt, that we play in a band.' So that was new information to us. It definitely came into play when we decided what we were going to do from there."

Within the band there were issues, too, mostly boiling down to Powers having so many new songs that couldn't be added to the set in any kind of regular pattern. There were restrictions on everyone's time to be involved in Sweet Sunny South doings, plus it was a basically leaderless group that made decisions collectively. Powers was itching to stretch.

"I felt lucky and happy that these guys were willing to play songs I was writing, and I didn't want to dictate too much about that. Everybody wants to have their say and add a bit of themselves to a song, so that's what would happen to the songs, which was great, because that developed into its own thing. However different Honey Don't sounds from Sweet Sunny South is sort of a difference of me wanting to do something of my own. Sweet Sunny South is a band of four people that have equal say in what we do, and Honey Don't is more like my and Shell's project, and things could be just the way we wanted them. It developed over time-I realized, hey, we could treat this however we want. We can play the song however we want, we can do whatever we want.

"And also, after playing with this group of people for a long time, and being fairly isolated up here—not a lot of people play this kind of music—I was interested in mixing. I had met a lot of people through playing and touring and playing festivals, and I was interested in playing with some different people to get some different juices flowing."

Bill Powers: 'It's always good to recognize and work on finding the happiness and satisfaction on your own, within yourself, just for yourself—not for what you're trying to achieve or what you think is going to make you what you want to be.'

In execution, Honey Don't is, arguably, more laid back than Sweet Sunny South, but maybe that's for the best, because Powers's latest batch of songs beg close scrutiny, so rich is the music, so smart and well-crafted are the lyrics. And as with SSS, a genial mood obtains, one brimming with a love of life and a generous, welcoming spirit. In the sprightly little workout, "Who Took the Jukebox," Powers, with Gray cooing smoothly behind him, gets his hackles up over finding his favorite restaurant minus its trademark jukebox. In this case it's not a matter of progress in the name of upgrading the premises, but rather the upshot of "goons" from BMI and ASCAP putting the kibosh on the tunes, which further suggests the unspoken addendum that someone wasn't paying proper royalties for the use of the intellectual property thereon. Ol' Perkins left it at "Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing," but Honey Don't does its thing in real time, with attendant consequences. The modern world is brought to bear on a more unvarnished slice of life, "You Can't Get Your Kicks on Route 66," a toe-tapping ditty featuring Greg Schochet's frisky mandolin lines buttressing Powers's raspy vocal, in a song that moves from extolling a time when the Mother Road was a place where "the roads were long, the girls were cool," to reporting on what's left of that magnificent two-laner now, to wit: "well the neon signs and long white lines are all gone, gone, gone..." as the song bustles ahead, chronicling the loss of this or that totemic 66 landmark, giving leeway to Drickey to add some fiddle exhortations to the mix, before adding the coup de grace: "Now they got that freeway, honey, but it don't feel free to me/You can drive all day but there still ain't nothing to see." Fans of Bobby Troup's original "Route 66" classic will be glad to hear that Powers name checks the same cities, but, again, from the current perspective: "Well on in to Texas where the cowboys roam/down into Gallup, New Mexico/On to Arizona, just forget about Winona, she's gone..." Funny thing is, the more Powers references all these things that are "gone, gone, gone" the more alluring Route 66 becomes as a destination—he sounds like he's having so damn much fun as he tools down the deserted highway, with that forlorn Interstate offering far less interesting vistas, that he winds up delivering a sideways kind of tribute to the route in question, which is still a singular experience, in all its dessicated glory. Musicologists might also want to note that Powers, as deft and expressive a guitarist as one could ask for, slips into this Route 66 ramble an unusual chord change out of Perkins's "Honey Don't" that had brother and rhythm guitarist Jay Perkins questioning Carl's sanity. Though original songs predominate, the group takes time out to do a terrific, languorous interpretation of Mississippi John Hurt's "Pallet On Your Floor," with Powers and Gray in easygoing, bluesy harmony and the fiddle and mandolin dialogue adding a sweet bluegrass feel to a song that has been adapted and adopted by roots artists of all stripes. Another cover, of the timeless "Cuckoo," originally an English folk song that uses a horse racing metaphor to stand in for a quest for lost love, gives Gray the vocal spotlight, and she delivers an appealing, oddly dry reading in contrast to the lively fiddle-mandolin-guitar backdrop steadily driving the song forward while lending a haunting touch to Gray's storytelling. Best of all, though, is the title song itself, a graceful, loping love song, a beautiful, low-flame love song that doesn't deny hard times ahead but believes wholeheartedly in the persistence of love and commitment. Drickey's expressive, keening fiddle evokes the heart's deepest yearning, and Powers's soft, easygoing vocal imbues each lyric with the power of a sacred vow. A body can only be grateful to a higher power for the privilege of being in the moment with this music.

Powers well knows his choice of group name means he will be forever be questioned about a Carl Perkins connection. He's happy to do so, and eager to acknowledge a debt to the Original Cat, who set an example he cherishes, both as a musician and as a man who was completely devoted to his family-a man with his priorities in order, which happens to be an attribute that shines through Powers's songs.

But consider these Perkins shadows herein: They take their name and album title song from a classic Perkins number; one of their songs references "Gone, Gone, Gone," the B side of Perkins's August 1955 single, "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playin'" (which was actually Perkins's first Sun single—his debut single had been released on the Sun subsidiary, Flip); and just as Perkins lauded his home state's virtues (including the curious addendum of pointing it out as "where they built the first atomic bomb") in "Tennessee," so does this outfit pay homage to the Volunteer State, albeit in absentia and in homesickness in a lovely, affecting bluegrass ballad, "Talk To Me Tennessee." Whereas Honey Don't may shout out to the Original Cat, they're in no way trying to encroach on his sacred turf in any other manner. Perkins liked to think of his music as being of the "feel good" variety, owing to its propulsive rhythmic thrust and high spirits (sometimes literally, as in being the product of too much alcohol consumed in the Sun studio during sessions); Honey Don't, advancing a subtle, low-flame rhythmic pulse, will also have you feeling good, not necessarily from the physical energy expended by those in their orbit but rather from being in the company of honest, unpretentious, unself-conscious artists.

"I don't mind at all being asked about Carl Perkins, because I don't mind the idea of being identified even a little bit with him," Powers declares. "I think he's an amazing figure, and probably one of the biggest things I think about as we struggle to become known, that's what Carl was trying to do, too. He was picking cotton! His life was really, really hard, and the things he had to overcome to do it are mind blowing to me. It makes possible the idea of us out here trying to do what we want to do in our own way—I think, Man, if Carl was able to do what he did, then anything really is possible. Just the other day the music director at KOTO, the music director at the station in Telluride, asked, 'Is this a Carl Perkins project?' And I said, 'No, not in particular, but you might hear some of that in there.' I like to think that some of the vibe that comes through in the music, that hopefully without sounding too presumptuous, that it would have something to do with the same kind of things Carl Perkins was offering."

Sweet Sunny South cuts out on 'Shortnin' Bread'

Actually, history shows there was a Honey Don't performance before Power's "Honey Don't" even existed. It was a New Year's Day performance for Panoia's Black Eye Pea Jubilee. Powers had signed up for it, then told his wife what was up.

Powers: "I don't remember if she really said, 'Honey, don't'—

Gray: "That was the sentiment! We call that encouragement."

Powers: "It puts a certain restraints on your behavior and activities the night before, which is New Year's Eve, when you sign yourself up to do anything the next day, so poor Shelley had to reign herself in. It was all of that kind of together, and we just settled on Honey Don't. You know, I just liked it. I liked the way it sounded, I liked the way it looked, and it plays on us being a couple. And there's no doubt that there's 'honey' this and 'honey' that."

Well, "honey, do" is the word here, because Powers and Gray profess to be inseparable. There was a moment, pre-Honey Don't, when she decided to bow out and urged her husband to go on with other pickers. In the blink of an eye he was urging her back into the fold.

Powers: "I felt like I was losing, it was going to be harder and people were going to be less interested in me standing up there—"

Gray: "I don't know..."

Powers: "I really do."

Gray: "I don't think so. But I do think we contribute, you're this genius songwriter who can come up with all these crazy, cool things—"

Powers: "Thank you."

Gray: "You're welcome. And I help to sort of keep it together, you know. Either one of us would have a hard time without the other person."

Powers: "I would have a hell of a time without Shelley. Oh, my God. In terms of just keeping my deal together. Because I do have that kind of artist brain where I'm very scattered, I'm very disorganized, she even helps me like in my way of communicating with people I'm playing with. There's so much going on in my head and I try to get it out of my mouth to tell people what I'm looking for, and sometimes I come off like a jerk the way I say it, but I don't mean to. And Shelley is very good at kind of corralling me and making sure I know it's my job to figure out what it is that I need and what you want before the moment so you can think about how you can tell people what you want, so that you get what you want because you said it in a nice way and in a way that someone can understand you. She's like, 'I know what you mean, but nobody else knows what you mean. You can't expect them to.'"

In their honest, loving banter, Powers and Gray articulate their deeper bond. Again, it's a sense of priorities being in order. As Honey Don't gains momentum, Powers is well aware that Carl Perkins, for one, ascended to the top of his world, only to find a searing loneliness awaiting him there, as his growing acclaim took him away from his family for longer periods of time, hastening his plunge into alcoholism. The lesson has not been lost on these two.

"That's the story with a lot of people," Powers states. "You think you have something until you have it, especially if you think that's what's going to make you happy. I guess that's why it's always good to recognize and work on finding the happiness and satisfaction on your own, within yourself, just for yourself—not for what you're trying to achieve or what you think is going to make you what you want to be. It's good to keep those things in mind."

Carl Perkins would surely nod in agreement at Powers's insights. And he could answer him with his own little aside as recorded on Sun Records: "Did you ever stop to think about, when something's right it's just flat right?

Buy it at www.honeydont.net

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024