GRAMPADREW: Existential-CowPunk-Flim Flam Man
The Whistle Stop Bar in Golden Hill (or South Park for those who are newer to the hood) on a Thursday night in November: a scattered crowd of dapper-bearded hipsters in flannel jackets, women with bleached hair and piercings, oldsters with steel wool beards and glasses. Big pints of beer, an occasional barking dog or two on the outside patio, a leather daddy in the enclosed alley behind the bar taking a drag, in conversation with a woman who might be a kindergarten teacher or a performance artist. Eclectic.
It’s a packed crowd stuffed into parkas and oversized cardigans (it’s almost, like, 50 degrees outside!), standing room only with people arranged around the juke box, the pool table, the bar stools. In front of the iconic red locomotive painted on the barroom wall behind the stage area, there’s a carmine hand-painted sign lovingly inscribed with one word: grampadrew.
Who is this vagabond poet who hails from Imperial Beach—one guy with one guitar and a microphone who will entertain this teeming sea of diverse humanity tonight with original tunes he describes as “music to cut your wrists by”?
He takes the stage, boots a-jangle with leather spurs, a cowboy hat tamping down the long hair. His face is bathed in red light, so it feels like we’re all on the express train choo-chooing to the underworld. Maybe so. At first glance, he looks like a don’t-give-a-fuck Woody Guthrie angry about the plight of the downtrodden. He strums the guitar, checks the mike, and starts with something soft and pretty, a ballad to calm the pint-drinkers and Gen Z buddies from the neighborhood. These are his people, a motley crew of mismatched socks and friendly faces, happy to squeeze into this colorful little dive bar for an evening of edgy stories and songs. It feels tribal in the best way, the way it used to feel to gather around a campfire and hear a story or a song with people you may not know but who share your humanity.
Everybody paid a $15 cover to be here, so they come ready to participate. Some sing along to grampadrew’s originals, because they’ve heard them before, and the songs have become their community. There are some new songs, too, and the guitar player admits he’s never played a couple of them before, not in front of people, so he stops and starts over at least once, but no one cares. He’s among friends and working without a net is what you do when you’re with your tribe.
So, what exactly is the experience that is grampadrew?
“We used to say that old punks never die, they just pick up acoustic guitars,” the man says. This is Drew Douglas, the father and embodiment of the stage persona that is grampadrew. His roots as a punk rocker might surprise listeners if they aren’t really paying attention. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear the social justice outrage, the below-the-surface anger, the railing against the establishment. He’s just doing it with one acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat.
“My elevator pitch has always been that I’m a combination of Willie Nelson, John Prine, and Joy Division,” he says a few days after his packed show at the Whistle Stop. “If you don’t understand what I’m doing, you don’t get that I’m coming from a post-punk place.”
A little Christmas cheer from grampadrew.
Douglas, who has been an advocate for elevating voices other than the standard white, straight male, says he was raised by powerful women, and that has shaped his musical influences. “My sensibilities come from this other place… P.J. Harvey is a huge influence, Lucinda Williams, Cat Power, Nico Case, but also BB King, the Minutemen, Public Enemy.”
Although many of the Whistle Stop listeners may not think of country music as something they necessarily gravitate toward, modern songwriters are much more willing to cross and mingle genres, and that’s reflected in grampadrew’s music. “My generation of people singing country and folk have those existential punk sensibilities. The Drive-By Truckers are punk as can be. They’re singing about the same stuff: social injustice, racial injustice, things that weren’t addressed before punk rock…classicism. Woody Guthrie might have been the first punk.”
Since grampadrew has roots in Oklahoma, he finds the work of Woody Guthrie particularly resonant. “His story is very personal to me,” he notes. “I come from Okies. I grew up listening to country music. It was all Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline on the 8-track during motorhome trips. There’s this thematic sadness, a wistfulness that goes across both punk and country.”
Any comparisons to contemporary country music, Drew waves off. “We can’t allow ‘country’ to be defined by the worst of what it is,” he says. “The artists of my generation who find themselves playing folk or country, there’s this tendency to say ‘this is the real country or ‘that’s not real country.’ I’m not interested in using labels to divide. So, I think that bothers me: who gets to be country, who gets to be punk. Nobody is any one thing.”
This is why grampadrew sort of prefers the term “cowpunk.” It was a thing in the ’80s, but as many trends do, it sort of fell out of favor for a time. Bands like the Beat Farmers, the Paladins, the Rugburns, and Social Distortion married the twang of acoustic guitars and finger picking with the more explicit and often dark themes of punk. Some credit a 1978 show at Texas’ Longhorn Ballroom that paired Merle Haggard with the Sex Pistols as the moment that may have started the trend.
The persona of grampadrew started as the handle for an admin account via Napster. (Napster was a 1999 early music streaming service where users could share content. It closed in 2002 due to copyright lawsuits. A form of it still exists as an app, but it’s not the same as in the old days of the sound frontier, where users could freely share whatever they wanted via digital files.)
Although music sharing today is the way most people learn about new music, that wasn’t always the case. Prior to Napster, the music business depended almost entirely on radio play and live concerts. If your music was independent and not distributed by an established record label, it was almost impossible to get that airplay. “As soon as I heard about the concept of the mp3, I understood the global implications of that immediately. Knowing I had direct distribution routes for the entire world, that clicked with me immediately,” he says.
Because Napster was on the forefront of the new internet world, sometimes people (men) took it as an excuse to be rude to some of the women on the forums. But seeing the handle ‘grampadrew’ as a moderator seemed to curb that impulse, so the name stuck. “This was before we had the ability to block people for bad behavior,” Drew says. “Grampadrew was the loveable old grampa who hits you in the head with his cane and throws quarters at you.”
At that time, Drew was making a living as a mortgage broker, and music was on the back burner, even though he obviously loved it. “Napster brought me back to music. All of a sudden there was a community, sharing music freely.”
After a trip to South by Southwest (a music convention held every year in Austin), he really got the bug for recording original music, and tried his hand at creating a record label. Matthew Strachota’s band Bartender’s Bible was the first band he tried to sign. “Suffice to say, he has a huge heart,” Strachota says. “He’s been there for me in some tough times. I’ve been a pain in his ass and vice versa.”
Trying to create a label at that time was a self-described failure, so grampadrew instead used the money he’d saved to build a studio, wrote four songs, and didn’t have any expectations. “The stakes were low, so I was fearless. I made the record, started pushing to radio stations. I had a lot of disappointing answers at first—local DJs saying I wasn’t ready for radio. But Tim Pyles [then at 91X] played me immediately. I’ll never forget driving home and hearing one of my songs playing on the radio.” The song’s title was “Clairvoyant Adventure.”
With Pyles (booker of the Casbah and host of the “Local Pyle” podcast) on his side, grampadrew started helping him book the San Diego Sport Club, which got him back into performing and believing “that I had something to say. I had shelved that part of my life that was a lot more important than I realized. I was really miserable in my job, and I didn’t feel like my life had ended up where I wanted it to be, not that it was terrible, but I didn’t feel like I had a lot of agency in my own story at that point.”
He started to really put effort and passion into creating songs that ranged from the personal (like “IB Local,” about his roots in Imperial Beach) or his grandfather, who inspired his songwriting. Lyrics from “Cut from the Cloth.”
I put on my grandfather’s shirt and it fit me to a T
there’s more to that man than I knew inside of me
my straw hat, my snap shirt
the way that I cuff my blue jeans
honest hard work and the importance of family
He built coffins and houses and a family
and was strict as a rule
a man of few words and stubborn as a mule
he labored with Mexicans and loved a mariachi tune
and he gave me this love of the music
of Hank, Johnny and June.
Strachota (leader of the band Trailduster, which he describes as a ‘loud honkytonk Americana band’) says, “I think grampadrew’s appealing to his fans for a combination of reasons. He is able to write a protest song that doesn’t necessarily sound like a protest song. His lyrics are accessible while still having a certain depth to them, and although personally he wears his politics on his sleeve, he is able to generally stay away from being too heavy handed lyrically. And that I think makes his songs appealing to a working-class crowd that often struggles under our current system. But it’s always with a pleasant melody, an honest presentation, and an often unique instrumentation that allows the songs to stand apart from whatever else is out there. Keeping it more simple, he’s a great singer and performer and the songs hold up.”
“I am a writer first,” Drew says. “Even if there’s schtick, and I cuss a lot. (I’ve worked it into the show by creating the Flim Flam Fuckometer.) I’m very aware that this is show business, but it has to be real and sincere and essentially being yourself. If nobody likes my music, fair enough. Not everyone wants to hear what I have to say. I want them to take away that they saw me, I showed them who I was. I tried to do it as fearlessly as I can.”
“All I Have” is a song that really stays with grampadrew. He wrote it quite a few years ago, when he and Pyles were booking the San Diego Sports Club.
I laid out everything
I had inside me to give
Still I’m stuck with this feeling
There’s something I need you to forgive
My physical gifts may be limited
But I’ll give you all I have
No matter how well I do
my reach falls short of the grasp
But I’ll give you everything
It may not be anything
But it’s all I have
I’ll give you everything
It may not be anything
But it’s all I have
All I have
All. I. Have.
Today, he not only plays gigs on his own, he also runs the Flim Flam Revue, a somewhat curated entity that may look like an open mic not, but it’s not. “It’s kind of difficult to describe. I don’t know of a thing anywhere else like what we’re doing…what makes it unique is that it’s more like a jazz jam from another angle. What separates it from a jazz jam is that we’re doing originals. The level of musicianship is mind blowing. I’ve never been part of a community like this. Frankly, we screw up a lot. If you want to see a well-rehearsed, tight show, don’t come. But in between those mistakes some real magic is going to happen.”
We don’t usually practice for the Flim Flam Revue. I mean, it’s called a Flim Flam and not the Totally Got Our Shit Together Revue for a reason!
The Flim Flam Revue, he says, owes a big debt to something called the Tin Can Country Club, named for the Tin Can, a bar run by Justin Rodriguez. On Mondays, they had a super cheap guitar, “a Chinese copy of a Gibson that barely held tune,” and one mic. “You had to get up and play that guitar. It was a great equalizer.”
Maybe counterintuitively, when grampadrew wasn’t the sole focus, Drew found that when he “centered other people, my personal visibility raised exponentially. My part in the community became much more solidified.” Another benefit of working with great local musicians? “If you keep your mind open and let what happens happen, you might learn things about your music you didn’t know.”
In the circus known as the music community, the Flim Flam is like seeing a trapeze artist working without a net. The whole show is organized via a Facebook page that Drew runs, and each performance showcases about 12 local singer/songwriters who get to perform three songs each with a sort of ‘house band’ of regulars. While the band of usual suspects stands at about 20 people at any given time, the group is open to new talent. “It’s all about community building,” grampadrew notes. “You need to show that you’re dedicated to something larger than yourself. Show up at each other’s shows, show up at our shows. If you show up and perform and go home, you’ll never be asked back again. I don’t care about talent that much. It’s commitment and community that needs to be nurtured.”
Strachota says that Drew “genuinely cares about his community and the people around him. I’ve hosted the Flam a few times and, though it’s only a small part of the work to host the day of the show, I’m always impressed that he does that once a month after planning and coordinating the whole thing.”
“Drew is always gonna be real and honest to your face. You always know where you stand with him,” says Julia Hall McMahon, photographer and local music scene front woman for roots duo the Jule-Tones and the four-piece string band Sunday Shoes. As part of the collective, she’s often featured in shows as well.
“I’ve been playing as part of the Flim Flam Revue since 2015,” says Julia Sage, who’s listed on music sites by her name as well as by the moniker Julia Sage and the Bad Hombres. “It’s been a great experience to be able to share the stage with so many talented, amazing musicians every month throughout these years. Playing with each and every one of them has made me a better player, and it has been a great place to bring new songs to try out in front of a supportive audience that won’t judge you if you mess up. There is something special and magical about jamming on stage with friends who have never heard your new song and somehow it ends up sounding amazing. It’s also been a way for a lot of us to discover other artists that we might not have come in contact with otherwise.”
New members can be recommended by an existing member, but it’s definitely not an open-mic situation. People who become part of Flim Flam must be part of the community, and while almost anyone can be given a chance to come on board, the musical ability is less important than the commitment to community that Drew tries to foster. “A rising tide raises all boats. Each of us can scream on our own, but collectively we can do a thing that makes all of us have a higher profile,” he says.
The Flim Flam has a house band for each evening, but it’s always slightly different from event to event, depending on who is available. The concept of a music community, a true congregation of fellow players who support each other and show up for each other, is the central idea of the revue. Money collected at the door is shared, and although Drew runs the accounting function of the Flim Flam, his records are transparent and anyone involved can ask to have a look at any time. And the shows don’t stop when the club closes.
“At the end of a show, we’ll come back to my house and have an after party. Those are phenomenal shows by themselves! We start to learn each other’s songs a little more, so the next month we’re not all totally green.”
A little taste of grampadrew’s Flim Flam Revue.
Strachota sees it this way: “The Flim Flam Revue is not an open mic. However, it is a welcome space for anyone. It is a scene that has been cultivated for over a decade now, and the diversity of personalities, songwriting, and musicianship is really a wonderful thing. So even though it’s not the kind of place where anyone can walk up and play, anyone is welcome to come out and join in the shenanigans and have a good time. And if you come out and show that you’re interested in being a part of this great community, you’re on the list and have the opportunity to play your own songs. And not only does everyone play together, we all play together. The after parties are sometimes the most interesting part of the evening with some of the best music. Honestly, a lot of collectives and communities can say the same thing, and I would never disparage them and say ‘we’re better.’ But when you spend an entire day with these folks, it’s just special.”
Julia Sage recalls one of the best Flim Flam shows, one that she organized and hosted before the pandemic put the kibosh on pretty much all local music for an extended time. “It was called the Lady Brain Showcase. That day we brought it to the Whistle Stop and it was an all-woman performance. It was just a beautiful event bursting with great energy (it was also a benefit show for RAINN which made it extra special).”
Lindsay White, a local writer, musician, and organizer, was the founder of Lady Brain, a collective of local women and non-binary creators that has been on hiatus since June 2021. “Drew and I have had several discussions about the ways men (particularly white, cis, hetero men) can leverage their resources for equitable purposes, and the Lady Brain Takeover was an example of him and Julia working together to put those conversations into action through the Flim Flam platform. I hope to see more local promoters and venues mindfully committing to representation, inclusion, and—for the love of God, compensation—of local artists, particularly those living in the margins. That includes not only gender-marginalized creators, but queer creators, non-white creators, disabled creators, low-income creators, and more. It’s not about checking some arbitrary DEI box, it’s about applying the lessons (I hope) we’ve all learned over the last few years about the value of art and the importance of community care toward creating a world where everyone can flourish.”
Grampadrew’s life in music has flourished and he has, indeed, given it all he can. Audiences and other local musicians are all the better for it.
The Flim Flam Revue is held on the first Saturday of the month at the Whistle Stop, 5-8pm.