The first time I heard old school, classic honky tonk music here in Alabama was in a most unlikely spot: The Country Club of Mobile. It was February 2009 and some gracious friends threw an over-the-top fantastic party there for the Professor and me to celebrate our recent wedding. Knowing us (and me in particular?) as well as they do, the ringleader party planner booked the best honkytonkin’ band on the Gulf Coast, The Modern Eldorados. I think anyone in attendance that night will concur, it was a big, big time. I am forever grateful for the event and all the laughs and memories it generated, but also for another enduring benefit…my new friend Gretsch Lyles.
Let’s be honest, I’m still relatively new to Mobile, I only live here part-time, and I can always use new friends — especially someone who will talk about old honky tonk music with me for hours on end. So when I reached out to Gretsch Lyles, frontman and lead singer of The Modern Eldorados, imagine my delight when he was warm, receptive and enthusiastic about getting together to talk tunes. Yesterday we met at another friend’s spot, Cream and Sugar Cafe, in the Oakleigh District here in Mobile.
It’s a good thing we picked a place so cozy, tasty and enjoyable because we were there for over three hours! We had the best time talking country music…its history, memorable albums, unique sounds and recording techniques, iconic singers. The only reason I had to break things up and tear away like Cinderella was to get myself home and gussied up for date night with the Professor.
Gretsch and I went deep on the history of honky tonk and shared similar stories of how we both cut our teeth on venerable greats such as Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Thompson. We both grew up in homes that had extensive vinyl collections and with parents that loved this type of music. The difference is that Gretsch has actual musicians in his DNA. His grandfather had a band in Mississippi in the 30s and 40s called The Lyles Brothers. It was his grandfather who started their record collection and then Gretsch’s dad added to it with 8-tracks and cassette tapes such as Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam. We both grew up listening to these sounds, not to mention, devouring the images on the album covers.
Hence, the inspiration for Gretsch’s fabulous western jackets and suits. He has many of them custom made by Manuel in Nashville, like so many other great country stars. Juxtaposed against the elaborate and eccentric fashions, his philosophies are laser focused and delivered plainly, “It’s the music I like and that’s what the country singers wear.”
And he backs up those Manuel suits with talent. I don’t know how anyone could see Gretsch Lyles perform live and be in a bad mood. He sings, plays guitar, wriggles around the stage a la the greats of stage wriggling…Hank, Elvis and Dwight. But he also has his own signature thai-chi style of leggy balance moves, all the while picking and singing. This video has inspired me to hit the bosu ball in the gym today and work on my own balancing act:
I learned a lot yesterday at my honky tonk tea time with Gretsch. He opened my eyes to the pathos and talent of Gary Stewart. He talked about a great Austin band from the 80s called the Wagoneers. I learned he loved Kelly Willis as much as I do. He told a fantastic story about one of the guys in his band whose wife gave him a Buck Owens CD set for Christmas one year. When his house caught fire he ran back inside just to save the Buck Owen box set.
I learned that his favorite place to play in Mobile is Callaghan’s, coincidentally my favorite place to see live music in Mobile. He told me some great stories about the old days when the Callaghan family owned the membership-only drinking establishment that kept the front door locked. At age 18, Gretsch rang the doorbell and watched through the window as Mrs. Callaghan sized him up, eventually buzzing him in. He drank Coca-colas and used their payphone to receive calls to book gigs. They had two old jukeboxes loaded with the best tunes and Gretsch says the first song he ever played on the jukebox there was Webb Pierce “There Stands The Glass”…hello pedal steel guitar.
[As an aside, I can’t even process how fabulous this nugget of info was….Gretsch owns a 1960 Wurlitzer. He turns it on and waits and waits until its tubes get really hot which alters the sound and makes the old honky tonk songs sound more like the old days. Waat?! Goosebumps. In my book, that is true music love in action.]
Callaghan’s is still going strong, owned now by a music lover named JT. According to Gretsch, JT loves and books a variety of genres, has a soft spot for the singer-songwriter, and is loyal to country traditionalists like The Modern Eldorados. Oh, and I can tell you myself, they have the best burger in Mobile.
Most of all I learned what a great guy Gretsch is. This cannot be overstated. He has the most gentle demeanor, and exudes kindness. In addition, he expresses so much respect for so many people that have inspired and/or mentored him, such as Hank Williams, songwriter Jim Lauderdale (whom we all know I love), and even local Mobile country legend Jack Cardwell who was a contemporary musician and friend of Hank’s. Gretsch was working in a grocery store in Saraland AL when he met and befriended an elderly Jack Cardwell. And he goes on to explain how he pays his respect to Hank. Anytime he and the band are in the Montgomery area, he stops by Hank’s grave and leaves him a guitar pic and a Lortab because he worries “Hank still might be hurting a little.”
Growing up Independent Baptist, Gretsch is a deeply principled man, having never had a beer, cigarette or illegal drug in his life. Which is particularly impressive since he has spent the past 22 years playing bars and nightclubs almost 200 nights each year. Simple math puts that at an estimated 4400 nights playing in bars or clubs or other venues. In our new but budding friendship I have already heard him state several times, “I have never had a bad show.” When it comes to the fans he always takes time to shake hands and talk to anyone after a show who wants to talk. He offers, “I always have time for those people because you never know what they’re going through.”
It’s clear to me Gretsch knows two things on a very deep level: the power of music and the power of kindness.
Which is why I am especially excited about his 2013. After twenty some-odd years he is releasing another album. In the 90s he did a concept demo album with some self-penned, traditional style country songs. For the past two decades he has been diligently writing songs and waiting for the right time to return to the studio. Hello perseverance. Yall should hear him talk about working hard, and staying focused on his music, and keeping the course. And patience! Financed with his own savings from those 4400 shows, he went to Nashville to Scotty Moore’s studio (Elvis’ famed guitar player) and assembled greats such as Marty Stuart’s guitarist to help him cut this record. The world, and this writer especially, eagerly await this album which will be released later this year. I can’t wait to wave the flag when it drops.
In the meantime, I encourage each and every one of you to support your local musicians. Go see live music, tip your waitresses, be as kind to others as Gretsch is, and we’ll all get along just fine.
If you’re curious, Gretsch did remember playing our country club post-wedding bash and recalls what a livewire crowd we assembled. Which just goes to show, good honky tonk can live and thrive in any possible setting, even a country club. Hide it under a bushel no! I for one am determined to keep it alive and relevant and it seems I have a new partner in crime. Thank you Grestch! You’re on the Christmas card list, my friend. I look forward to our next honky tonk tea time and getting nerdy with our music history talk.