Make us your home page

Tampa's best bands: They're a little bit country




Next up on our tour of Tampa's top bands: Roots, blues and good ol' country music.

You already know how much we love Bluegrass Parlor Band, Will Quinlan and the Diviners and Have Gun, Will Travel. But there's always room for more down-home music in these parts, whether it's straight-up Nashvillian twang, a la Amanda Drake and the Barn Burners, above, or the more folkified leanings of a Halcyon or Brendan Nolan.

Read on to learn about some of our favorite local blues, roots and country artists...

The Marys: Pasco residents Mary Epperson, Lea Thomas and Anne Waddey are the Marys, who dub their Southern roots ‚Äôn‚Äô roll sound ‚Äúsoul twang.‚Äù They play about 80 percent originals with some soulful covers thrown in. Waddey also fronts the jammy, bluesy Freight Train Annie, and hosts the monthly series Freight Train Annie‚Äôs Girlie Show, a spotlight on female performers, at Skipper‚Äôs Smokehouse, where she works as a bartender. The next Girlie Show is Tuesday night with Emily Roff, Lorna Bracewell, Sunset Bridge featuring Gracie Greishop and Speakeasy Band.  

Halcyon: Stephanie Callahan and Deb Hunseder of St. Pete’s Halcyon have been slinging their brand of passionate acoustic folk-pop around Tampa (and the Southeast) for two decades — in fact, they’ve got a 20th-anniversary show coming up at Skipper’s on May 16. Like the Indigo Girls (to whom they’re frequently compared), Callahan and Hunseder are gay, and they have a strong lesbian following. But their gigs draw tons of fans of all orientations. They’re among the few local artists who can truly be called icons.

Johnny G. Lyon Band: Lyon, a bluesy singer-guitarist with the L.A. band the Hitmakers, returned to Tampa in the mid-‚Äô80s and has been a mainstay of the local bar scene ever since. With a mix of tight covers and catchy originals, Lyon has drawn a crowd wherever he‚Äôs played in Tampa ‚Äî including his own place, the defunct Johnny G‚Äôs on Memorial Highway. (He just helped launch a new place, the Proud Lion, at Fletcher and Florida in Tampa.) The band‚Äôs current lineup includes Ray Blade (nee John Jay Friss) on drums and Benny ‚ÄúBen Jammin‚Äô‚Äù¬? Sudano on bass; both have shared the stage with many big names in rock. And the guy who sings with Lyon is Tommy Duncan, founder of the popular Tampa blog Sticks of Fire.

Sheila Kirsten Hughes Band: How’s this for an unconventional breakthrough: In October, Tampa folkie Sheila Kirsten Hughes, 32, of Land O’Lakes, starred in YouTube’s featured video of the day ... in Australia and New Zealand. The clip was a lovely solo cover of Modern Life, a ballad by Australian singer Doug Payne, and so far it’s racked up more than 20,000 hits. Hughes (whose band includes her husband, Chris Hughes, and multi-instrumentalist Alex Wolfe Parnes) says YouTube has helped her gain fans all over the world. “A lot of folks on YouTube have been asking for some of my newer songs that haven’t been recorded yet on CD,” she said, including a Celtic cover of Scarborough Fair.

Amanda Drake and the Barn Burners: In December, Drake, 22, won a radio contest to open for Blake Shelton at the ACC Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. She’s now prepping a CD, and is heading to Nashville soon to play a showcase for Warner Brothers. With raucous tracks like Windows and Doors (“I can drink a Bud Light, all night, keep ’em coming, that’s right”), the Wesley Chapel singer and her band — guitarists Tommy Burruano and Christian Permenter, drummer Sean Smith, bassist John Tillman, keyboardist J.F. Tedesco and multi-instrumentalist Freddy Chandler — might be poised for a Gretchen Wilson-type breakthrough. “Pretty crazy for a bunch of best friends that have been hanging out since we were in elementary school,” Drake said.

Midnight Bowlers League: Rockabilly was huge on the local scene in ’08, and Tampa’s Midnight Bowlers League did their part. Singer Tim Masters, drummer Mike Fluno, guitarist Nafa and bassist Scott “The Knyfe” Mattis serve up some old-school, ’50s- and ’60s-inspired greaser jams in the vein of Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran. To keep the sound true, Nafa said, Masters has reworked vintage amps and mics to “make sure we keep the faith, so to speak, with staying traditional.”

The Wedding Party: Twangy Lakelanders the Wedding Party — singer Drew Cox, bassist George Brinkley and David Carmichael on guitar, harmonica and percussion — dish out a country-fried retro-indie vibe on their 2008 CD, Welcome to your Twenties, and are working on a follow-up. It’s a little bit like an Eels record wrapped in an itchy — but warm — wool sweater.

Brendan Nolan: St. Pete Beach's Brendan Nolan grew up just north of Dublin. Now he‚Äôs one of the area‚Äôs top traditional Irish folk musicians, traveling to bars and festivals around the country performing originals and traditionals; he says his music has become ‚Äúmore upbeat‚Äù since moving to Florida. He‚Äôs released more than a half-dozen albums, including 2007‚Äôs Song Brook, with vocals that call to mind American Recordings-era Johnny Cash.

Maggie Council: Maggie Council lived  in Southeast Seminole Heights for six years. So inspired was she by the, um, colorful neighborhood that she wrote a bluesy, acoustic song about it, Nebraska Avenue, off her 2008 album Not in the House. Sample lyric: ‚ÄúThe crackers stand with crackheads in line at the Texaco/There seems to be room for all down on Nebraska Avenue.‚Äù The song picked up airplay on WMNF (where Council is a board member) and has resonated with residents. Click here to read more.

Lois Greco: As an actor, “soulful, rockin’, rhythm and blues” wailer Lois Greco has appeared on Days of our Lives and General Hospital, and starred in Grease on Broadway. Now she writes music for film and TV, and splits her time between her native Rhode Island and the Tampa Bay area, where she has regular gigs at Keel & Curley Winery in Plant City and Ka’Tiki in Treasure Island. She’s working on a new CD, Taking Hold of Your Heart, due for release later this year.

Jon Puhl: Zydeco-tinged blues guitarist Jon Puhl of Largo plays Southern stompers like Alligator Alley and The Hustle with a bit of Chicago flavor. He’s been playing guitar for 39 years, most recently with the Treblemakers, a North Pinellas group that includes Warren Honeyhead Smith on drums and Mick Donner on bass.

Crabgrass Cowboys: Retro rebels the Crabgrass Cowboys (Hapi McKenzie, guitar and vocals; Patty Pfister, violin and vocals; Richard Ayers, drums; and Jim Davis, bass) are all about dusty old western swing ballads in the vein of Gram Parsons and Asleep at the Wheel. Founders McKenzie and Pfister have been jamming together since 1988. Their song 7th Ave. and You is proof that the Hold Steady aren‚Äôt the only band that can sing about Ybor City.

Nervous Turkey: Nervous isn‚Äôt a word you‚Äôd use to describe frontman Ernie Locke‚Äôs gut¬?tural, Tom Waitsy voice. With his harmonica, guitar, and raucous band¬?mates Aaron Fowler and Mark Cun¬?ningham, Locke and Nervous Turkey kick out some of the nastiest blues tunes around Tampa Bay. They're performing with Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band Thursday at Crowbar in Ybor City.

Dive Bar Stalkers: Rockabilly rebels the Dive Bar Stalkers boast a talented lineup: singer and guitarist Jeff Vitolo (Mojo Gurus, Roxx Gang), guitarist Bob Addington, bassist Mike Allen, key¬?boardist Anthony Landi, drummer Mike Luciano, saxman Ronnie Dee, Lindsey Mercer on harmonica and backup singers Jana Cervenkova and Lisa London. Their songs drunkenly careen from grease pits to blues bars to strip clubs, with plenty of whiskey along the way. They're performing at St. Pete's Ringside Cafe on Friday.

November Foxtrot Whiskey: They've been away for a while, but Aaron Lepley and Damon Dougherty of November Foxtrot Whiskey are coming back this weekend for a Saturday night show at New World Brewery in Ybor City. The band switches gears from garage rock to classic rock to blues to gypsy jangle to ballads with whiplash-induc¬?ing transitions, but they pull it off without hurting a hair on their pretty heads. It‚Äôs a heady brew that might contain disparate ingredients, but it all goes down smoothly, with tricky stylistic licks and beats mixed in. One of tbt*'s Ultimate Local Bands in 2008.

Blind Buddy Moody: Florida native Blind Buddy Moody has been blind since birth, and has won state championships in vocals, harmonica, dobro and flat-picked guitar. Before settling down to marriage and getting licensed as a massage therapist two decades ago, Moody, 56 lived a musician‚Äôs life, sharing billing with country and blues su¬?perstars: George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Waylon Jen¬?nings. One of tbt*'s Ultimate Local Bands in 2008.

Julie Black: Julie Black’s nickname is “Angel for Blues,” but the New Port Richey singer sounds as though she’d be just as comfortable performing at a swanky nightclub. Her 2007 CD Call Me Angel for Blues blends Delta blues and piano-driven jazz, with a sound that’s equal parts Bettye LaVette, Etta James and even Norah Jones. She recently played the Clearwater SeaBlues Festival.

Memphis Train Union: Truth be told, Dunedin‚Äôs Memphis Train Union has only one Mem¬?phian in its lineup: drummer Mike Warmath. But his bandmates, singer Dave Korman and bassist Jason Angelo, bring a foot-stomping Southern soul to their music. Scene vet Korman (Leonard Croon Band, Hangtown) wails about cheap beer and lost love with the best of ‚Äòem. For more on the band, click here.

Brahm Bones: With their driving electric guitars and Blake Masters‚Äô weary barroom vocals, Tampa‚Äôs Brahm Bones call to mind alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo. Masters, formerly of the Rubes, recruited band-hoppers Keith Bartlett (bass), David Kibby (guitar) and Paul Moroz (drums), and they play a mix of originals and covers, including tracks by Otis Red¬?ding, the Velvet Underground and the Pixies.

Wiley Fox: If you’ve been to an outdoor festival in Pasco County over the past 16 years, you’ve probably heard Hudson five-piece Wiley Fox belt out some of their boot-scootin’ favorites. Jesse Embry and company, who sound a bit like Rascal Flatts and Montgomery Gentry, have opened for Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks. Check 'em out Saturday Night at Simms Park in New Port Richey.

Ronny Elliott: Elliott prides himself on being born in 1947, the same year as rock ‚Äôn‚Äô roll, he says. The steady and soulful vocalist and versatile guitarist conjures Johnny Cash and Robbie Robertson. He began in the scene in 1964 ‚Äî probably has the other acts beat! ‚Äî playing bass and singing in the Raveons, a Tampa garage band. He‚Äôs shared billing with the Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Dave Clark Five, Van Morrison and Gene Vincent. In 1967, when he opened for Jimi Hendrix with band Your Local Bear, a newspaper article called his music ‚Äúcountry rock ‚Äôn‚Äô roll.‚Äù His CD Valentine Roadkill was hon¬?ored as one of the Top 10 Americana Albums 2005 by MOJO Magazine, and he's still plenty relevant, having just played the annual Florida Bandango at South By Southwest.

Roppongi's Ace: How can guys so young play the blues and bluegrass so well? That‚Äôs what you‚Äôll ask yourself when you hear Max Norton (drums, guitar and vocals) Alex Spoto (vocals, violin and guitar), Rob Pastore (pedal steel) and Jesse Norton (harmonica and vocals) perform their mix of vintage American styles ‚Äî blues, bluegrass and rock ‚Äòn‚Äô roll. As a duo, Norton and Spoto started out sounding like the Black Keys, whom the two nearly worshipped. But their sound has since gotten fuller and more distinctive. Alex, who's also a member of Will Quinlan's band the Diviners, will be performing with Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band at Crowbar on Thursday and bluegrass legend Charlie Louvin on Friday. 

Experimental Pilot: Dynamic St. Petersburg duo Robert and Stephen Vessenmeyer sing and play acoustic guitars. The brothers call themselves Yankee hillbillies. They were born in Brooklyn and raised Roman Catholic but grew up in Reidsville, N.C. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre rootsy and rural,‚Äù Stephen once told tbt*. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs how I write, sometimes kind of spiritually. It‚Äôs like redneck soul ... or acoustic soul.‚Äù The brothers Vessenmeyer first earned prestige through their former band Men From Earth, who burned bright and fast in the mid ‚Äô90s. And their musical legacy isn't over -- Stephen's 11-year-old daughter, Ella Jet, is a rising singer-songwriter in her own right.

Wendy and the Soulshakers: Soul chanteuse Wendy Rich com¬?mands the stage with dynamic pres¬?ence and a howling, achingly pretty set of pipes that leaves you with chills before warming your insides. She joined the Soulshakers in 1991 after moving to the area from Texas She might remind you of Janis Joplin ‚Äî she has even filled in as a lead singer for Joplin‚Äôs band Big Brother & the Holding Company at big festivals throughout the country. Nowadays, she performs with Soulshakers Steve ‚ÄúRed‚Äù Lasner on guitar, drummer Duane Plikunas and Dwayne Slayton on bass. They have toured extensively and shared bills with Jefferson Starship, Edgar Winter, Ambrosia and Molly Hatchett.

Damon Fowler Group: Much loved locally, a hit nationally and a favorite at Tampa Bay blues bars, the no-holds-barred band fea¬?tures Fowler on guitars and vocals, Chuck Riley on bass and Scott Key on drums. Severe injuries sustained in a car crash in December 2005 sidelined the acclaimed singer-songwriter and ace guitarist for almost a year. Now, Fowler's extraordinary comeback has culminated with the release of his national debut album, Sugar Shack. The disc came out Jan. 27 on the venerable roots and blues label Blind Pig Records (Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Muddy Waters). It rose to No. 12 on Billboard's Top Blues Albums chart.

Mike Tozier: He plays straight guitar, slide guitar, harmonica and sings, sharing vocal duties with his guitar. It sounds like an old toothless Mississippi man talking back to him. Tozier has been playing around in bars, coffee shopsand bars like Yeoman‚Äôs Road for a decade and a half. He‚Äôs opened for Dr. John and Leon Russell.

Pickford Sundries: Jason ‚ÄúFil‚Äù Pate, mandolin, Nathanial "Tug" Win¬?throp (dobro and vocals), Tony Caruso (guitar and vocals), Brian Lane (upright bass), Fred Donovan (guitar and vocals) named their bluegrass band after a long-defunct shop that still bears the skeletal remains of a pink storefront on Hillsborough Avenue, just west of Armenia. "I've been in Tampa since '89, back when it was open," says Winthrop. "I liked the quaintness of the place and the folks who ran it. I kind of thought it fit us ‚Äî obsolete and sort of hanging in there. It's also the cheapest billboard in town." For more on Pickford Sundries, click here.

Sandy Atkinson: Singer Sandy Atkinson is active in the blues tradition on and off the stage. She was the Committee Chairperson for the Suncoast Blues Society‚Äôs Blues in the Schools program (2001-05), and she hosted and produced Gator Blues & News a one hour talk/music TV show that featured local area blues artists. Nowadays, you can catch her playing live at blues-friendly joints around Tampa Bay.

The Urbane Cowboys: Imagine a hayseed band traveling through time. They make pit stops to jam with Elvis and Dick Dale before warping to the 21st century and dig¬?ging on punk and indie rock. That band would be Urbane Cowboys. Formed in Tampa in 1999, the Urbane Cowboys are Michael Snayd (vocals and acoustic guitar), Kamran Mir (electric guitar and vocals), Steven Schumacher (bass and vocals) and Rob ‚ÄúHans‚Äù Jolowski (drums).


[Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 12:00pm]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours