When Buck Owens stopped making records at the end of the 1970s, he said it was because the toothless pop hybrid that had come to pass for country music didn't much interest him any more.
Had more groups been playing the kind of true-blue, sod-on-the-boots honky-tonk that Patty Booker & the Hired Hands specialize in, Owens might not have been so quick to hang up his guitar.
"The real stories, the lyrical content, the instruments all sound so warm--I just love that style of music," Booker, 33, said recently. "It's so honest, so down-to-earth. It says what it means, means what it says and has something real honest to say. . . . I can't put it into words--the way the lyrics and the instruments sound, it's like they are talking to each other."
That's the guiding principle behind Booker's music, whether it's the band's originals or its nimble covers of classic tunes by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones and the two singers Booker most closely resembles, Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn.
"The thing about Loretta Lynn, is that all her songs were like her life story," Booker said. "When I write, I try to take that approach--if I can't feel the song, or know something about what I'm writing, I don't write it."
Born in San Pedro to parents transplanted from Oklahoma, Booker spent much of her childhood inundated with country music.
While Booker had always loved and sung country music as a fan, it wasn't until 1985 that she started to seriously pursue music as a career. That's because immediately after graduating from high school, she got married and had three children, who are now 16, 15 and 10.
Through friends, she met Hired Hand steel guitarist and chief songwriter Gary Brandin and eventually they formed their own band.
They were booked almost immediately to play the Upbeat in Garden Grove and were so well-received that they stayed there for the next three years. In the last year, the band has been branching out to play other Orange County country bars, including Cook's Corner in El Toro, the Swallows Inn in San Juan Capistrano and the Wounded Knee Saloon in Anaheim.
Along with Booker and Brandin, who also doubles on lap steel and electric guitars, the Hired Hands include lead guitarist Rick Shea, bassist Keith Rosier and drummer Gary Mitchell. Far from simply being Patty Booker's supporting group, the Hired Hands are on equal footing in their shows. Lead vocals are frequently handled by Shea, an easygoing vocalist whose drawn-out phrasing at times echoes Rick Nelson and John Anderson.