Country Rockin’ with the Rebels
Mike Head sits in his Cabeza Records music studio in San Carlos, discussing his band, the Country Rockin’ Rebels. “We’re not re-inventing the wheel here,” he says. “In music a lot of the time, that’s the case too.” They are in the gradual process of recording their third full-length CD, with the working title Little Rebel Girl, slated to be the last of a three CD cycle–an idea first originated 10 years ago after Head and cofounder Tristan Luhrs originally teamed up for a Luhrs solo album.
“We had a concept sitting here in the studio that we would go out and perform these songs as a duo, and the concept for the next album was country rock, since the next album was to be Country Rockin’ Rebels. So we started recording the album, just the two of us, and the band just grew out of it. Then we backed into the concept and went out and got different players to go out and play live. It was kind of cool, we had a good idea–not shiny, modern country, but a little more grit, more dirt road, a little bit of rhyming going on, but it was pretty solid country rock style.”
For the most part, Luhrs provided the chord progressions and lyrics, and Head turned his ideas into reality in the studio as arranger and producer, as well as lead guitarist. Most of the songs come from a group of 30 that Luhrs had in mind before the first album was started. As Head puts it, “He’s the basic songwriter, and I sort of make it bigger. I’m just trying to bring his vision to life of the songs I know that he has in his head. And to get a band and make them happen, to put them into reality.”
After releasing their self-titled debut, they had a full band in the studio for 2016’s followup, Ride Rebel Ride. Since then, more changes. “The personnel have evolved a little bit. Tristan Luhrs is the lead singer and acoustic guitar, I got backup vocals and electric guitar, Steve Tahmahkera on drums, Troy Sandoval on bass, Chris Wott on harp. We have a part-time pedal steel and fiddle player, Ted Stern, who plays on the albums and plays a handful of shows a year. Chris has kind of stepped in; he is an up and coming harp player and good songwriter in his own right. That covers the other half.”
“Our motto was ‘too rock for country and too country for rock,’ which we came up with a while back. We knew we were not real, hard-core twangy country, but we’re not straight rock. We’re more rock/Southern rock–when we get together, that’s what comes out. That actually opens you up for a lot of gigs.” The eclectic approach works well for finding an audience, and for a full-time pro musician like Head.
“We can play what we want, including cover shows–Pink Floyd, Elvis, and Tom Petty. Early influences. That’s good for me, as a full-time musician, it’s a tough go. I think it’s good; people really dig it.”
On the country side of the ledger, some of their influences are not hard to miss: Johnny Cash, outlaw Bakersfield country stars, but Head is also quick to point to the White Stripes and adds, “We’re from the ‘Rolling Stones is the best country rock band ever’ crowd.”
About Jack White’s punk and blues-influenced garage band White Stripes, Head is very enthused. “They influenced me and Tristan a lot early on. They were a non-blues blues band, a duo. A lot about the life, the immediacy of it: get a good take no matter what it takes. Kind of like that Stones thing, where maybe it isn’t note for note if you sat and analyzed it, but they play and play and then all of a sudden, it locks in somewhere. Maybe three songs in, and it’s like “oh, that’s the Stones, that kind of swagger.” He plays live and in the studio on a gold Airline electric guitar, the same model as the red one used by White, and loves the sound it produces.
Originally from Virginia, Head’s dad owned a music store full of records and juicy top-grade electric guitars. “I was a Jimmy Page guy. I would look at the albums when I was a kid, and see ‘produced by Jimmy Page.’ I went, ‘that guy’s cool, I want to be that guy.’ I consider some of Led Zeppelin’s songs little orchestras. These guys were building little rock symphonies, they really were.” After finding a home in Ocean Beach and a partner named Tom Trapp, he gradually took on the role himself, at first recording bands for free on analog equipment.
“Then some started saying, ‘Hey, we’ll pay you to record us.’ 10 bucks an hour, then 15, and it got to 20 and 25 an hour. It just grew from there, 100% by word of mouth. We had an eight-track, and a 16-track, one inch; so we’ve moved on to the next big thing, so to speak. Tom Trapp was a big part of getting me going. He’s moved on to Texas.”
“I consider myself West Coast by now, more than half of my life out here. Sort of grew up in OB. Then I went to GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology) in Hollywood, and I came back to San Diego, full circle. It’s kind of cool, OB never leaves you a hundred percent.” He runs the music the OB Farmer’s Market music and books the bands for the OB Street Fair.
The Rebels have found a home, also. Their other local gigs include festivals, breweries, and they play on the Bahia Belle on Mission Bay during the summers. Head also points out that they play gigs for good causes, such as for Wounded Veterans and the Stand Down event in Balboa Park. “Anything from duo to full band. If Tristan can’t make it, Chris Wott can sing, so he and I can do shows, so we’ve really branched out.”
“A lot of the gigs we do, there’s a nice built-in crowd. More and more, we have had handfuls of people that come to every show, and tell us about ‘remember the show…’ It’s a mix. I never disparage San Diego like a lot of people do. ‘You can’t do this or that in San Diego.’ It’s like, you can do anything you want to do if you want to work hard anywhere you are. And it is out there, there are a lot of music fans in San Diego, people that are really into it. Yeah, we enjoy it.”
The band is also pursuing dates in other California locales, up the coast, as well as looking into opportunities via GigTown and other connections in Arizona and Texas for future dates.
The posts around the patio sport seven Tiki masks, standing silent above patches of Astroturf and worn redwood furniture and a couple of American flag-themed shade awnings, in front of Santee’s Pacific Islander Brewery. Tonight’s live music will start early, and at exactly 6pm three vehicles roll up and the Country Rockin’ Rollers unsaddle and start turning a concrete slab area next to the parking lot into a music stage. For a while most of the action concerns customers getting near-overflow, frothy glasses of microbrew suds, or buying early dinner from the “Snack Grill” food truck stationed in the lot opposite the front door past the fence with the “No drinking past this point–So start chugging” signs.
A decent early show crowd is on hand by the time the gear is set up and the rigs are in tune; Tristan Luhrs noodles the riff from “Evil Ways” on his acoustic guitar, which becomes the lead lick from “Light My Fire.” Minutes later, CRR open with “Man in Blue,” a signature tune from their self-titled 2014 CD, and the band’s strengths wash over the assembly like waves over a beach. Luhrs has a distinctive depth and strong vocal delivery that evokes patron saints like Cash, George Jones, and Kris Kristofferson, while the smart lyrics take the melody of “Folsom Prison Blues” and graft on lyrics about moving from youthful fascination with Elvis and Cash to later commitments to Springsteen, Hendrix, and the Who. This band’s country soul resides in Luhr’s pipes, but there is more, soon seen in “Too Rock for Country, Too Country for Rock,” another smart original that grinds in on power drums by Steve Tahmahkera like some cranked-up, Exiles-era ’70s Stones track, to settle into a rock groove that gives guitarist Mike Head and impressive harp man Chris Wott plenty of chances to step up for flashy solos, while making the band’s purpose statement.
The gang show their southern rock roots with “One Way Out” as Luhrs channels Greg Allman. Likely tired from their second gig today, their confidence in their sound shows in six originals in the opening 10-song set, this time with “Marie.” This quirky ballad again reflects Luhrs’ songwriting gift–as heard through Head’s arrangement ability, as it unhurriedly tells a tale of devotion as he tells her his heart is hers for free–“you can take it, you can break it.” There’s a subtle Creedence Clearwater Revival vibe to the tune, and the band echoes it during the set’s covers with “Suzy Q,” always a crowd fave, and like the original, leaning on drums and bass for its real power. Tonight’s set will also include tunes by Petty, the Stones, Cash, Dylan, and others, while 12-bar blues is paid its due as well. The first set wraps with a song from the new album, “Rock Stars Need Not Apply,” once again driving home the lack of glamour of working country rock music men, who “work for peanuts” and early on learn the meaning of “fill up your tank, and you’re broke again.”
Head is passionate about elevating the profile of the band.
“Tristan, our singer is talented–he’s almost underrated. He’s not necessarily recognized in that upper echelon of local singer/artists, but he should be, and he’s getting there. I know how the music biz works, so I try to percolate us up, percolate us up, try to get us somewhere close. I’m good friends with Al Howard and all his bands and what they do with independent music. I just try to emulate these people that are good.”
His Cabeza Studios and record label are doing well, with clientele headed by the Rebels (who double as the house backing band). And he is becoming a resource in the business.
“People are starting to come to me, ‘Hey, you do this and that, and I’m staringt to do that; can I use this idea?’ And I realize, I might be getting somewhere when people are coming to me asking the same questions as I am asking.
“This album cycle is something I’ve been a big proponent of and I’ve spent ten years trying to get it out there. It’s getting better each time, and each year it’s getting better for me–as an independent musician and as a full-time musician. I think that is a good thing.”