Walking the Line
By J. Will Morrison
It’s becoming increasingly rare to walk into a bar or nightclub and see a live band on the bill. More often than not, the expectation in the digital age is to find the modern equivalent of a jukebox, lonely in the corner, charging patrons a dollar to hear that song that used to be popular ten years ago. It’s sad really, the modern concept of “what you know is what you’ll get.” The inherent problem is risk. Proprietors are growing increasingly unwilling to shill out money for a band they can’t be sure of to fill the house. What they fail to realize is that in a world where mediocrity is on the rise, musicians will never stop working hard to put on a good show. This is especially true of San Diego band The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash.
The Bastard Sons put forth the driven, modern country of The Working Man. Mark Stuart, the founder and singer/songwriter, is not one to mince words, and you won’t find his lyrics published in the Paris Review. His is the meaty, no-nonsense music that’ll get you through a long cross-country drive. Songs like “Seven Miles to Memphis” and “Train’s Gonna Roll” follow the classic Nashville stories of longing and distance. This is straightforward, no-nonsense music.
Stuart began his musical journey in 1995, after the Man in Black himself visited him in a dream. “He would come to me in dreams, and play me songs,” says Stuart. “Shortly after I started having these dreams, all this music started pouring out of me.”
And pour it did. Within a few years the Bastard Sons were touring the US. One fateful night in 2008, at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, Stuart met Cash in person. “We were invited to his house in Hendersonville, Tennessee, where we recorded songs for our first record. He told us he would be honored if we were his bastard sons.” Later that year, the band was invited to play at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic for over 20,000 attendees. For the next fifteen years the band toured the country and later Europe, releasing six records along the way. In 2006, Stuart moved to Austin, Texas following a divorce. After earning his “Texas Spurs,” he returned to San Diego, where he currently lives.
Despite the name, Stuart’s band borrows little from the country legend. They play with a more modern, polished style, and though he sings of loss and suffering, on the whole Stuart’s writing is more light-hearted and playful. You won’t find anything especially groundbreaking, but that’s the point. This is the kind of music you’d want to hear after a long day, when you’re ready to have a good time. It’s a style that’s been sadly lacking these days. There are no bells or whistles, no dropped bass, nothing to really get in the way. In a world wrapped up in pretense, this kind of honesty is a welcome respite. “I didn’t necessarily know every single thing about traditional country music,” says Stuart. “So I thought ‘Well, I’ll just do it my own way.’” Stuart works hard at his craft. Each morning he sits at a kitchen table for two hours, whether inspired or not, trying out progressions and lyrics.
This summer, the Bastard Sons will be recording their seventh album. Before they do, however, they’ll be finishing up their latest tour, playing shows down Southern California.
Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneer Town Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.bsojc.com, www.pappyandharriets.com. Fri, May 24; Sat, May 25, 8pm. All ages.