Dave Stuckey of The Lucky Stars and the Hukilau Hotshots comes to the New England Shakeup.
By Noah Schaffer
For years New England has had one of the country’s more active rockabilly scenes. But while local rockabilly bands have often been tapped for international festivals, our area, ironically enough, hasn’t had much in the way of annual vintage music events.
That changed five years ago when the first New England Shakeup was held in Sturbridge, MA. Now promoter Beck Rustic’s celebration of classic music, cars, and clothing has proven it can hold its own as a rockabilly destination.
Besides showcasing local heroes Miss Amy, Sean Mencher, Jeff DeWare & the Bop Thrills, the Shakeup brings to town a full roster of West Coast talent, including Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, top-tier entertainer Lil’ Mo and his Unholy Four, and Las Vegas’ Delta Bombers.
It’ll also be the first time since 2009 that LA Western Swing greats The Lucky Stars will be heard locally; their Hawaiian alter-egos, the Hukilau Hotshots, will be performing at the pool party. Lucky Stars’ drummer/vocalist Dave Stuckey rarely tours under his own name, but he’s well known to any fan of the rockabilly and vintage music scene. Along with Deke Dekerson, he helped unleash the hillbilly and rockabilly revival with the Dave and Deke Combo. His other projects have explored early country and jazz with X drummer DJ Bonebreak’s Bronebreak Syncopators, as well as with Stuckey’s groups the Rhythm Gang, the Hothouse Gang, and the 4 Hoot Owls.
Besides his musical performances, Stuckey will give the Shakeup a generous taste of his vast collection of music on film from the first half of the 20th Century — celluloid that no doubt will be presented with Stuckey’s distinctive sense of humor and awed respect.
Recently, The Arts Fuse spoke with Stuckey from his home in Los Angeles.
Arts Fuse: A lot of cities have a Western swing combo that covers the genre’s greatest hits, but The Lucky Stars have really focused on writing original material. What’s the challenge in trying to capture a classic sound without simply recycling it?
Dave Stuckey: I can’t speak for Sage [Guyton], who writes most of our material, but my approach has always been that I couldn’t replicate the old music if I tried. I talk to Big Sandy about this a lot. If you didn’t grow up in that time or place or working that kind of job, what you can do is try to capture the spirit and try to capture the world that it comes from. When I was writing songs I’d think of a specific person and think of what they absorbed — for instance, what did Bob Wills listen to? What were his influences? When I was writing for Dave and Deke, I’d think “could this song title belong on a 78?” I went to Japan in 1999 and was backed by a great Western swing band called the Rolling Rocks. They were great, but one of their originals was a Western swing version of a Japanese folk song. It was so cool because they brought their own thing to the song. Big Sandy has really progressed as a songwriter, so now you listen and it’s not just another rockabilly thing; he’s got his own sound and feel. The music can’t live in amber — but I do try to avoid modern colloquialisms.
AF: Yeah, in the ’90s a lot of blues acts would try to update their lyrics and sing about how their fax machine was out of paper. Those CDs sure don’t hold up very well today.
Stuckey: I know there’s this argument that if bass player could play electric basses in the ’40s they would have. And that’s true, but you have to go with the sound you like and the feel of the instruments has to stay pretty true to the origins. Lyrically you gotta go universal — Chuck Berry’s lyrics and subject matter still sound modern today because his topics were so universal. Same with Hank Williams. When I was growing up back in Lawrence the ethos of bands I liked was punk, where it’s square to dress up to play or go to a gig. And that is fine, but when you’re trying to get to a certain sound and capture the spirit that you like it’s hard to just show up in jeans and a t-shirt. How you dress makes you feel closer to the music.
AF: A friend likes to say that whenever he goes to a rockabilly event like the Shakeup he wants to move to Los Angeles because there’s so much incredible talent there. Why do you think Southern California has been such a mecca for the vintage music scene, compared to other regions where the music originated but hasn’t really been kept alive?
Stuckey: I started thinking about that in 1984 when I moved out there. Back home I’d meet people who liked these kinds of music — I played in surf bands and it was cool — but then I moved to LA and met these guys who had it down. They were playing the music with an upright bass, vintage amps, dressing in classic styles — and I know there are people who mock that, but I feel like every little thing you can do to build towards the sound helps. Big Sandy would tell me how in high school his friends would hang out and play music in old cars. I’ve always attributed it to the unreality of Southern California. The weather and the movie industry and the history all lends itself to the feeling that anything could happen out here. It’s not a weird idea to think we’re going to dress up in ’50s outfits and play rockabilly for a bunch of other kids. Nobody tells you no out here. We’re doing this Hawaiian set at the Shakeup and I have to bone up on the music. I’ll take my ukulele on my commute and practice at stop lights. That’s just something you’d see in LA: a guy at a stoplight playing his uke.
AF: Speaking of the Hukilau Hotshots, can you explain exactly what the group plays?
Stuckey: That’s a band that does not get to play enough because it’s a genre without a constituency — it’s too old for the tikki and exotica crowd. In the ’30s there was hapa haole music, which means Hawaiian caucasian! It’s the mainland influence of pop and jazz played by Hawaiian guys bringing the steel guitar into the mix, so you get ’20s jazz tunes but in a Hawaiian style with the uke and the steel guitar. Russ Blake plays the standard steel guitar in The Lucky Stars but he plays a Hawaiian steel guitar as well.
AF: It’s interesting to hear that Hawaiian music borrowed from jazz and pop and country since, of course, a lot of mainland American music, especially country, adopted the Hawaiian sound via the steel guitar.
Stuckey: It was really a two-way street and in a way it’s not so different from Western Swing, where rural people wanted to play jazz but they played it with instruments that were common to their region. Some of the songs we do are by Andy Iona and His Islanders. In their day they backed up Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers. It’s just another part of that great American musical stew.
AF: You always bring humor to your presentations. The Dave and Deke Combo has done a series of Hillbillyfest events, most recently at the Viva Las Vegas weekend, which are over-the-top events, complete with tobacco spittin’ and creamed corn eating contests and giant outhouses. Have you ever had anyone get the wrong impression and accuse you were making fun of, rather than embracing, rural culture?
Stuckey: I have never had that happen. There’s no greater fun for me than for us to be clowning and hearing people laughing. I hope we present the music in the spirit of the love we have for the tradition. I grew up with Hee Haw. Humor is such a huge part of the country music tradition. It was always part of the live show for the artists that we love. Well, maybe not the Carter Family, but if you went to see someone like Ernest Tubb, the bass player would also be the clown. They’d sing some very sentimental songs but also have some crazy fun. That’s what I love about the Cramps — they were more like Mad Magazine than this [serious] gothic thing.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.