When Paul Kirby was about 5 years old, a crew-cut, clean-shaven Willie Nelson was a frequent guest at the family's home near Nashville. Kirby called him "Uncle Willie" and enjoyed jumping on him.
A few years later, Kirby was blowing harmonica in at-home jam sessions with Merle Haggard, another of the many country stars who employed his father, Dave Kirby, as a touring guitarist or studio session player.
He also recalls his father summoning him to play command recitals on the bugle for Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, family friends who had written "Bye Bye Love" and "Wake Up, Little Susie" for the Everly Brothers.
Kirby's pure country childhood influences are abundantly present on "The Cactus Brothers," the recent debut album by the Nashville-based band that he fronts as singer and main songwriter. But so are a lot of left-field rock influences that he picked up in his teens and 20s.
Being dandled on Willie Nelson's knee and trading licks with the Hag are certainly memories to cherish. But for Kirby, so are the times he got to play as an opening act for the Ramones, and the night when he and a handful of other Nashville punk-rock fans caught the Violent Femmes on one of their first tours. Kirby recalls hobnobbing at length after that show with the Femmes' strange little singer, Gordon Gano.
"I went outside and rapped with him all night long. He was trying to convert me to the Lord," Kirby said over the phone recently from a country-music festival site in Oregon, where the Cactus Brothers were a week into their first national tour. The seven-man band will play at the Coach House on Sunday.
At a time when Nashville is offering pat, if often immensely popular, recycling of the polished '70s Southern California rock sound epitomized by the Eagles, and the rougher Lynyrd Skynyrd-style Southern rock of the same era, the Cactus Brothers' album represents a far more adventurous and unpredictable approach to crossbreeding country and rock roots.
Drawing upon an array of acoustic and electric instruments that includes banjo, dulcimer, fiddle and mandolin, the band delves into Celtic and rural American sources that predate commercial country music (the album includes arrangements of the traditional songs "Blackberry Blossom" and "Fisher's Hornpipe").
Many of the tracks drive and swirl with a force and density almost never heard on a mainstream country recording ("The Cactus Brothers" was produced by Allen Reynolds and Mark Miller, key members of Garth Brooks' record production team).
Kirby, who cites Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant as the most important influences on his singing, essays rockers and ballads in a rough, reedy, lived-in voice that makes up in feeling and urgency what it lacks in sparkle and purity.
The album's highlights include "Our Love," a sweetly lilting song in the tradition of Buddy Holly's "Everyday"; "Devil Wind," a darkly mysterious, ferociously played rocker that cops the rhythm guitar riff of the Doors' "Love Her Madly" (Kirby acknowledges the theft but says it happened subconsciously); and "The Price of Love," an Everly Brothers oldie delivered in a hard-kicking style that brings to mind the Band stomping through "The Shape I'm In."
"Almost every vocal and (instrumental) track on the album is absolutely live," Kirby said. "We had to do a few fiddle overdubs, real minor stuff, but every song is basically a live track. We were real proud of that, because you don't hear that coming out of Nashville, ever."
Kirby, 31, said that he "went through a real big Hank Williams phase when I was a kid," then moved on to rock favorites such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin.
In high school, he started a band with brothers Will and John Goleman, who are now the lead guitarist and bassist of the Cactus Brothers. In the early '80s, they fell under the influence of Jason & the Scorchers, a Nashville band that cherished country-music roots but played blow-out-the-walls rock 'n' roll inspired by punk bands and the Rolling Stones.
Kirby and the Goleman brothers formed Walk the West, a band with a similar country-plus-punk bent. After establishing a regional following in the South, Walk the West recorded an album for Capitol Records in 1986, toured nationally as opening act for the Smithereens, and also played some dates with the Ramones.
But the band, which also included fiddler Tramp and drummer David Kennedy, failed to catch fire commercially and lost its recording deal. Walk the West trudged on, trying to land a new recording contract. But Kirby said that by the late 1980s, labels had lost interest in hard rock with a country flavor.
In 1986, Kirby said, one of his close friends from high school died in a car wreck, and he, Tramp and John Goleman performed a quiet, acoustic version of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" at his funeral. They decided to continue that less amped-up approach as a side project to Walk the West.