It's a little after midnight and Mark Stuart's mind is racing. He's asleep, but his dreams are not-so-subtly hijacked by a dark entity-an all too familiar one.
Stuart's got Johnny Cash on the brain, and his condition goes far beyond having “Ring of Fire” on permanent cerebral repeat.
“I was playing in a rock band called Nicotine Blues at the time and I couldn't get anything to come out like I wanted it to. I just kept coming out with this lonesome, western sound,” recalls Stuart, head honcho and driving force behind San Diego's retort to over-polished Nashville country-the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash.
“All the music that I was writing somehow started to turn a little bit twangy and I was going, ‘wow, this is really bizarre.'”
Stuart began having visions of American music's original punk rocker in his late 20's. His mother was a big western fan, he says, “so I blame it on her.”
Stuart didn't even like country. So when a dusty chord and a lonesome twang became his knee-jerk creative output, he wondered, “What the hell is happening to me?' I thought I was being taken over by western aliens or something.”
After a while, he says, he had written so much western music that he needed to get it out.
“So I formed the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash just as a fun little bar band that I could get out and play these country songs that I was getting,” he says. To Stuart's chagrin, people liked his country music more than his first true love.
“They said, ‘Man, you've found your calling because you suck at rock and roll.'”
Since hanging up his distortion pedals and settling into a rich country groove, Stuart and BSOJC have done pretty damn well for themselves, even by Nashville standards. Their first album, Walk Alone, was a raw throwback to country's intense roots, and critics gushed. The album got rave reviews from Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, New York Post and The Nashville Tennessean.
Since, the band has recorded in Johnny Cash's home studio. They've also scored a fan in Hollywood eccentric, Billy Bob Thornton, who contributed vocals to the song, “Long Black Veil,” from their new album, The Distance Between (to be released on Aug. 28).
“He's from Arkansas, man-Billy Bob's been playing in bands since the '70s,” Stuart responds to my skepticism.
I ask him what he hoped Thornton would bring to the mix.
“We were hoping he would bring some beer and cigarettes.”
“He's totally cool and very, very humble. He takes recording and music very seriously. He approaches it with the same sort of reverence that I imagine he has for his films.”
All of this isn't bad for a bunch of dudes from San Diego.
“To me, music is not a demographic, it's a heart thing,” Stuart says. “So, if you're a country band from San Diego and you don't sound like you're from San Diego, it's probably because country is inside in your soul. It's not geographic.”
Other people in the business couldn't agree more with Stuart, particularly the band's new manager. Dan Gillis, who also manages country rocker Steve Earle, flew out to see the Bastard Sons in mid-July at L.A. club, the Mint in L.A.
Upon hearing the band play a set of tunes from their new album, Distance Between, Gillis phoned Stuart the very next day and announced that he would be managing the band from now on.
“Here we are,” Stuart says, “a San Diego band-now we're ending up with management out of Nashville-who would have ever thought it?”