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Monte Warden: A Laser From Hillbilly Heaven? : Pop music: The singer-songwriter combines the best of the greats to emerge as a unique talent set for stardom. He plays Sunday in Anaheim.

September 10, 1993|NOEL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Suppose Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb all came back to earth at the same time, and suppose that they all returned in a single human body. This composite hillbilly, rockabilly honky-tonker might look and sound a lot like Monte Warden.

Warden first caught the ears of roots music buffs as the lead singer and chief songwriter of the Wagoneers, who nearly had a country hit in 1988 with his "I Wanna Know Her Again." Now on his own with his first solo album on Watermelon Records, Warden and his three-piece band roared into Southern California this week on a tour that included the Swallows Inn on Monday and that will bring them to Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim on Sunday.

During his three sets at the Swallows, Warden moved with a nervous energy reminiscent of the young Presley, sang with a catch in his voice that recalled Holly, occasionally shifted into a high lonesome croon like Orbison and drove his songs home with a hard-driving honky-tonk edge that was a throwback to Tubb and Williams.

Warden assimilated all his influences so completely, though, that he emerged as a unique performer. Of the 34 numbers he performed Monday night, more than two-thirds were his.

*

In an interview before the show, Warden explained that he fell in love with country and rockabilly while he was growing up in Austin, Tex. He started writing songs as a child.

"When I started listening to records, glam rock and disco were hot so I started listening to my folks' records--George Jones, Buddy Holly and Elvis," Warden said. "My biggest influences are Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen and Hank Williams. They're all writers, and I wanted to be like them so I just started writing. Except for six weeks delivering typewriters, this is the only job I've ever had."

When he was 15, Warden formed a band called Whoa! Trigger, a rockabilly band with a hard country sound. Whoa! Trigger was voted Austin's best new band in 1983. In 1987, Warden got together with three other hot young pickers in the lively Austin country scene to form the Wagoneers. The group was signed by A&M Records six months after its first gig.

The Wagoneers' debut album, "Stout and High," was greeted by critical raves, and the band electrified audiences with its dynamic live shows. The Wagoneers seemed like the future of country music but somehow the band never quite made the breakthrough to a mass audience. What went wrong?

Warden attributes the Wagoneers' problems to a combination of growing up in public and the record label's inexperience with working records to country radio, but he has no regrets.

"It was extremely exciting," he said. "In hindsight, the band went through a lot of growing pains we should have gone through in our living rooms."

*

Although they placed two songs on the country charts, the Wagoneers just couldn't get a real hit single. The group was A&M Records' first country band.

"We knew it wasn't going to happen when A&M cut a deal with RCA Records to work our songs on radio," Warden said. "RCA had its own roster of country artists. Its promotion men were hardly likely to devote attention to a new band from another label."

Warden left the Wagoneers in 1990 after a second album. He signed as a solo artist by RCA, an experience Warden described as a disaster.

"I'm pretty stubborn about my music," he said. "They wanted to tone it down. They put me in with Eddie Rabbitt's record producer. I wasn't going to do it. They wouldn't have liked the result."

After leaving RCA and spending some time songwriting, Warden finally signed with the Austin-based Watermelon Records.

"Watermelon was the only label from the major majors to the smallest of the small that would let my band play on the record and that would let my drummer, Mas Palermo, produce it," Warden explained. "I had no track record to show I knew how to make an album, yet they had the faith to let me do it."

Backed by ex-Wagoneer Brent Wilson on lead guitar and former members of Kelly Willies' Radio Ranch, Brad Rodham on bass and Palermo on drums, Warden ran through most of the songs from his new album, several new songs and covers including inspired readings of Springsteen's "Nebraska" and Ray Price's "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You."

His catchy melodies and elegantly simple lyrics cut through the smoke in the barroom like a laser from hillbilly heaven, while the backbeat drove the songs home with a rock 'n' roll vengeance. That combination could give Warden the muscle he needs to push his way into the country pack.

* Monte Warden and the Hyperions play Sunday at 8 p.m. at Linda's Doll Hut, 107 S. Adams St., Anaheim. $5. (714) 533-1286.

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