Billy McKnight fondly recalls a time when Nativity Catholic School students got first crack at the Novemberfest midway.
"We would just ride the best ones over and over again like the Rockin' Roller," McKnight said. "It was also way different times, a smaller town when everyone knew everyone.
"That's why the beer tent is so popular nowadays. It was family back then, so it is a complete Brandon reunion when we go to the beer tent every year."
Now grown, McKnight returns to Novemberfest Friday with his Soul Circus Cowboys band. He has gone from the Rockin' Roller to being a rock 'n' roller.
On the group's latest hit, the upbeat rush of power chords carried by the powerful beats of the drum signals the start of an anthem celebrating the idea that a hard day's work deserves a good party.
That's the Way We Roll, the title track from their upcoming album, offers a taste of the Soul Circus Cowboys' latest effort, slated for release in early 2014. The road that the group has traveled can be described as one of hard work and dedication.
"I found the best musicians in this area and I do believe I have the best musicians," said McKnight, the band's founder.
The Brandon native moved to Nashville in 1994 and spent 10 years learning the ins and outs of the music industry.
"Nashville was like a college to me," McKnight said.
When McKnight returned to Florida, he knew the sound that he was looking for and went on a mission to find band mates to bring his idea to life. McKnight felt that it was important to be authentic to his bay area roots.
"When I lived up in Nashville for those 10 years, I'd see these acts come in from all over the place," McKnight said. "They would get Nashville-groomed and they wound up picking up these Nashville players. They wound up being these Nashville recording artists.
"We are a Tampa-based band and the stories we write and perform are from here."
The bay area musicians that make up the rest of the sextet are Jason Alfano on drums; Stephen Haendiges and Terry Cole on guitars; Michael Bach on bass; and Greg Holt on fiddle.
Most of what makes the band work is the chemistry that they share with one another.
McKnight said the name Soul Circus Cowboys was inspired by their life experiences, comparing them with a roller coaster ride. The cowboy and soul part of the name comes from their musical style.
"We are all multi-instrumental," said Alfano, the drummer. "We all have a good idea of what each other needs. We have all been playing music on a professional level for years. We try not to step on each others' toes and we all work to make each other sound good. I feel that if I support the band, and the band supports me, we all shine."
The group's first album debuted in 2011 and produced two singles that helped them gain attention on a national level. One of those, Lay it Down, was accompanied by a music video that was picked up by national cable networks GAC, Great American Country, and CMT, Country Music Television.
The band also caught the attention of award-winning music industry veterans like Frank Myers and Jimmy Nichols, who produced the band's latest album.
"He put this band together and they were doing a lot of covers and recorded a few things," Myers said. "I went down and saw them live and I felt that they needed a couple of songs that were more party-type songs."
Myers felt as if the band needed songs that matched the brand that McKnight worked hard on building. He sent McKnight a couple of songs to listen to and one of those songs was a demo that later became That's the Way We Roll.
"It had to be fun and up-tempo," Myers said. "There is nothing that makes me want to throw up any more than listening to a CD and everything sounds the same on it. I like to see that an artist is not one-dimensional."
The band is well known by their local following. Fans travel to local venues such as Shephard's on Clearwater Beach, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, Hogan's Beach on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, and Keel and Curley Winery in Plant City. Check their website for dates, soulcircuscowboys.com.
An average Soul Circus Cowboys gig is about four hours of music mixed with AC/DC and Aerosmith covers and original songs. The music caters to their diverse fan base.
"We have just about everybody that you can think of that likes to have a good time, let their hair down, do some dancing, and let the work week go by," McKnight said. "We are a band that's about getting up to have some fun and feel free about it. Sometimes we have go-go dancers in our show and we can play from Plant City to South Tampa and we still hold it down and people dig us."
McKnight said that they are very grateful and loyal to their fans. In early 2014, the group is planning to go on a tour where they will travel beyond a 300-mile radius of the Tampa Bay area.
But a part of McKnight's heart always will reside with his childhood reflections at Nativity.
"I'm very proud to play there and even if I get on a big tour I will find a way to get back here to play Novemberfest," McKnight said. "Very fond memories."
Jonathan Milton can be reached at [email protected]