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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : Country Craze : The Twangin' Iguanas is becoming one of the best new bands on the tri-counties block.

August 13, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suddenly, country-Western converts are everywhere. It's getting downright insidious. Can't these people be registered or forced to wear the appropriate garb and/or headwear for identification?

You could be sitting next to one right now, looking for all the world like any generic Southern Californian. But inside, they may be humming a country ditty they heard in the car on KHAY. They may be plotting their next descent into the growing C & W club scene.

It's happening to musicians too. Former die-hard rock 'n' roll or blues players might find themselves suddenly immersed in the country craze all around them.

Take the Twangin' Iguanas, a band out of Santa Barbara which, barely half a year out of the chute, is becoming one of the best new country bands on the Tri-Counties block.

Don't ask for a twangy pedigree from the leader. Raised in Long Island, Doug Miller is a guitarist-singer-songwriter type who has been knocking around Santa Barbara for many years, playing first in New Wave bands 10 years ago and, most recently, in a folk-rockish unit called Tinderbox.

It was in Tinderbox that Miller met up with guitarist Barney Miller, whose own country music obsession was reaching a fevered pitch.

"Barney had always wanted to put together a real traditional country band, a Bakersfield-y type of band," Miller said over lunch last week, after a late gig the night before. "He asked me to be the singer. I like that stuff, but I'd never done it before." Miller got a little mock self-conscious. "Don't put that in the story. I want to look authentic."

What counts, of course, is that Twangin' Iguanas sounds authentic--as well as passionate and a bit rough around the edges.

What finally turned Miller into a convert, though, was Dwight Yoakum, the man who would be the king of neo-Buck Owens-brand country music. Yoakum boasts the distinction of having nabbed a record deal after working in the more open-sky Los Angeles club scene of the early '80s. Today, country music showcase clubs outside of Nashville are virtually unheard of.

You won't see the Twangin' Iguanas in the usual C & W dance halls, but you will find them on the outskirts at lovably funky places like the Rock House on Ventura Boulevard, where they played last weekend, or at Maxi's in Oakview, where they'll play Aug. 22.

They'll also be playing at Joseppi's in Santa Barbara on Saturday. For the most part, though, Miller said the best response to the group has been in Ventura. "Santa Barbara ain't open to it. It's the good people of Ventura who like us, especially the crowd there at Maxi's."

What do they do that's so threatening to the status quo? In a word, originals. Good ones.

As guitarist Barney Tower, the twangin' Telecaster specialist, commented: "We'd like to play all originals and a few obscure covers, but it's nice to have gigs." He grinned, a little nervously. "We'll throw a few popular tunes into a set and fool people into thinking they're hearing more." It's a benevolent deception.

Miller said playing Top 40 is pretty much a requirement. "We fought doing that for a long time, but we realized that there are lots of good songs that are in the Top 40. Clint Black has some great stuff. We're going to place some, but we won't fall into the trap of just doing that."

Also in the ranks of the Iguanas is Tower's wife, Rosie, on bass and sweet high vocals; Richard McDavid on drums; Los Angeles keyboardist David Bloom, and pedal steel player Mike Robinson.

Miller writes the songs. The Iguanas flesh them out. "Barney is very big on arranging," Miller said. "He's got a great ear and is up on everything. He's a sponge. He rips off the best."

Last weekend at the Rock House, the Iguanas dished out a balanced diet of offbeat but not unheard-of cover tunes: Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine" and Johnny Cash's "Big River," done in tight two-part harmony (not the Grateful Dead version).

There also were generous doses of Miller's material, from the rockin' "No More Heartaches" to the waltz, "The Coldest Town in the World." Miller sings with the slightest of borrowed twangs, and looks something like a young, towheaded Johnny Cash.

Then came the token requester-of-doom, insistent on hearing "Sweet Home Alabama." Obviously, she was not a true country convert. "We don't know that one," Miller said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "How about 'Hello Trouble'? That has some of the same notes."

In April, the band went into SNM studio in Goleta to record a demo with the in-demand engineer Cliff Narell, who went on to work on the current album in progress by R.E.M. The band also plans to go into keyboardist Bloom's studio in Hollywood to cut an album's worth of songs.

But the Iguanas harbor no delusions that the skies will part and the Southern California scene will once again develop a hunger for original country music. For Miller, though, who seems to be basking in the aura of a new love, recording contracts and fame aren't everything.

"Not only has (country music) been great for me musically, but it's done something to me personally, too, in letting down walls," he said.

"It's not the flavor-of-the-month club. It just chugs along. It's real and it is what it is."

Spoken like a bona fide convert.

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