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Country Cool, Show-Biz Sweat

April 02, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

Curtis Tilton from the Bull Durham Band was hanging around backstage, dressed in black like Johnny Cash and sipping a Corona beer.

Calvin Davidson, who has his own band, slumped into one of the dressing rooms and flipped open his guitar case. There was a bottle of Cuervo tequila and a pack of cigarettes in there, right next to his Fender Stratocaster.

These guys were cool, but some of the other players were looking uneasy. A drummer in another band banged a staccato beat against the wall in the next room, and the guys from the Doo-Wah Riders were out behind the club, standing in the parking lot with their girlfriends, fidgeting.

The bands were waiting to get on stage, where each would have just 15 minutes to play a few country tunes for the judges. The band voted best would get $5,000 and, better yet, would be the opening act for Merle Haggard, Alabama and The Judds at a sold-out concert Friday in the Forum.

That's a big deal for bands like the ones who showed up last week at the Country Club in Reseda. They probably are the best country bands on the Los Angeles club circuit, but that still means playing small cowboy bars with names like the Longhorn and the Mule Lip, and maybe an occasional booking at Magic Mountain.

It means they play Top-40 country songs for the folks, sneak in some original material here and there and hope someone from a record label is listening.

"This could help us break out of the club scene," said Billy Block, the drummer for Doo-Wah Riders. "I'm nervous. I'm like this." He made a monster face. The band's keyboard player, Kenny Lee Benson of Sherman Oaks, nodded his head.

"Yeah, this morning I woke up extra early without an alarm clock," Benson said.

Back inside, guitarist Tilton took another draw from his beer and adjusted his silver bolo tie. He was talking about an arrangement he'd written a few years back, a bluegrass version of Jimi Hendrix's acid-rock anthem "Purple Haze."

Bob Metzger of Studio City, guitarist for Davidson's band, stalked into the dressing room with a book of baseball statistics.

"The Dodgers are not going to win it this year. It's all right here in this book."

Marlboro paid the tab for this contest. The cigarette company called it the Marlboro Country Music Talent Roundup. More than 150 Los Angeles bands sent in audition tapes, and 40 were selected in preliminary rounds at clubs around the city. The top eight were invited to the Country Club for the finals.

For the last five years, Marlboro has sponsored the contests in 16 cities, from Boston to Birmingham to Seattle, coinciding with a country-music tour that the company promotes.

Of the eight top bands in Los Angeles, four were from the San Fernando Valley--the Doo-Wah Riders, Bull Durham, Calvin Davidson & Darkhorse and the Terry Gregory Band.

The Foss Brothers, who really are brothers, drove down from Solvang. Boy Howdy came up from Orange County. So did the Jann Brown Stebner Band, which got real excited about the contest--they had T-shirts printed up, and Doug James, the bass player, bought a new pair of collar tips.

"I take these things too seriously," said singer Stebner, who wore silver sparkles in her long, blond hair. "I have to learn to have fun."

The judges were two local disc jockeys, a guy from RCA Records and a musician whose band records for Warner Bros.

But the bands weren't just playing for the judges. About 900 people showed up to watch the finals, although at least half of those were friends and family of band members. The other half paid a buck to get in.

And, once the music started, the atmosphere inside the club was noisy and happy and smoky (maybe because tickets were so cheap and maybe because Marlboro was handing out small packs of cigarettes to everyone who came).

Stebner and her band were first up. They played a fast, hot set while the rest of the bands fidgeted backstage or upstairs in the dressing rooms, stepping out front every few minutes to listen.

The musicians were nervous but friendly. Having been a part of the local scene for years, many of them had played together in different bands in the past. Cary Park, a guitarist for Bull Durham, once played with Stebner and has a brother, Larry, who plays for Boy Howdy.

"It's like a little community where the bands know each other, so this contest isn't a vicious thing," said Davidson, a North Hollywood resident. "We're here to have fun, to hear each other."

But in the next room, where Billy Ray Austin and the City Limits Band were warming up, guitarist Gene Mundy wasn't buying any of that. He tugged down on the brim of his Resistol Stage Coach edition cowboy hat.

"We're here to win," Mundy said. "We're here to kick some ass. We came to play."

Dave (Bull) Durham was taking the pragmatic approach. Durham and his Van Nuys band pride themselves on being professionals, playing night-in and night-out at amusement parks, bars and county fairs.

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