Michael Damron had the Dixie Chicks beat way back in the third grade.
"I got in trouble for writing a nasty letter to the White House about Nixon being a murderer in Vietnam....and some other stuff," says the leader of possibly the most unabashedly political band in the country, Portland's I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House.
"It was basically just me mimicking my dad's opinions," says the singer-songwriter-guitarist, a former 101st Airborne Division boxing champion in the Army. Damron named his band after John L. Sullivan, the world's last bare-knuckle boxing champ. Formed around Damron's neo-twang stylings in 2001, the band debuted as a quartet with Creepy Little Noises on Portland's homegrown In Music We Trust label.
"My dad was a pretty staunch Democrat," Damron explains. "He was always going off on Nixon this and Nixon that. So when I was in third grade, I wrote a letter to the White House asking all these questions about why our President was basically murdering in Vietnam and a criminal at home. And, uh, I got in trouble for it. The White House replied to my school.
"So it started at a young age."
SoB's early material was solid, razor-throated songs of death and addiction, suicide and sweetly whispered lies. In other words, standard American rebel music. But something about the group's potential for turning phrases in emotionally barren arrangements lurked beneath. Based on just a two-song demo, CityBeat's A&E editor Troy Johnson booked the act to perform on his weekly music show Fox Rox-giving them a television debut before they could even get booked in local clubs like The Casbah. In 2003 they released Put Here to Bleed, a surprisingly disparate reconfiguration of style and dynamic range.
Soon after, Mike D. worked his way into the hearts of San Diego's main Dragon Mario Escovedo, Tim Mays at The Casbah and others who were staging tributes to Texan singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C last year. When Damron heard of the cause, he got Escovedo family and label approval, then booked and staged a successful tribute of his own in Portland.
"Oh, it was an honor, really, an honor," says Damron, whose conversational tone often swings between swagger and sensitivity. "That's something that musicians should live for. If you're in this for something other than those sorts of privileges, that's so sad, just sad, man."
Now, after the truly grassroots whispers have become soft buzzing, it's time for a third release. But Damron's got a surprise again: Supersuckers producer David Fisher is mixing twin full-length discs, one to be released in the summer, and its counterpart come fall.
"Aw man, wait 'til you hear what we got for you in the studio right now," says Damron as the band drives around Nashville, an appropriate stop on their current tour. "We did go from one rigid style to another, wide open approach before. But the new stuff will be another planet."
SoB's searing blend of rural loudfastrules has even generated interest from legendary misfit-music prince Paul Westerberg, though Damron says he doesn't want to jinx anything by mentioning any tentative plans or details. For now, he and the boys are content to keep challenging everyone in the room in a new place every night.
"It's all new ground to us- that's exciting. We're like Lewis and Clark, just going the opposite direction. Still just as lost, but at least we got a mission: to get Bush outta office."
And whereas the Dixie Chicks went ditzy chicken under the heat, SoB are just small enough to make a difference.
"We don't really get any problems, man. It's the opposite," says Damron. "People come up to us and say, "Thanks for writing this song or that.' One guy was like, "You guys are heroes for us.'
"I just couldn't believe that."
I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House plays with The ScotchGreens at The Casbah, 8:30 p.m. on April 14. $8. 619-232-HELL.