Shock-A-Billy Tuesday

By Dallas Embry

It was a Tuesday evening in May, after I had attended a meeting, that I decided to check out some music before I went home. I stopped at Butchertown Pub to see what I had expected to be a solo performer a la Fogelberg but instead sat through six homogenized love songs performed by a pop-oriented guitar band before I remembered that Laurence Beall (pronounced Bell) was in town for the night.

As I walked into The Rudyard Kipling, the unmistakable twang rock of The Sultans gave a lift to my soul and flipped the dance mode switch in my brain as they rocked through "Cruisin' for Love."

After I acquired a drink and was settling into a front-row seat, I once again reflected on the sad state of affairs that some really good bands face in this city: playing to empty rooms. The last couple of times I had seen this fine band they were playing to a virtually empty room at Uncle P's. Now, in a different venue, the same sad story.

I put my reflections away as Huddie Ledbetter's "Midnight Special" came high-balling off the stage and through the room. Po Hannah's train-whistle guitar, Geoff Newhall's steam-chugging bass, and Drew White's drivin'-wheel drums were the perfect accompaniment to Beall's alone-in-a-prison-cell-blues vocal and the country twang of his guitar.

Laurence Beall and The Sultans play mostly music penned by Beall himself. But they also throw in a little Johnny Cash every once in a while, and at every performance I've ever attended have played the aforementioned Leadbelly song.

After rock 'n' rollin' again with "I'm Ready," Beall and the boys changed gears and played a really pretty Tex Mex (a la Doug Sahm) song written by Beall and titled "Petals On the Snow." They changed once again with "When You Call" in which the lead guitar is feathered way down (Beall's vocal soars) before rising to a rousing, rocking conclusion.

"Roberta," a song about losing a love found in the back seat of a Greyhound, is one of those moody pieces that cause some to label this music "Gothic-billy." "Only A Memory," in the same vein, featured some nice slide guitar by Hannah, who didn't use a slide!

Listening to these guys one hears a little Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers (the Blue Yodeler ... and, yes, Beall even throws in a yodel or two), Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley and others of the rockabilly era. Combined with Beall's own dark-edge-of-passionate-reality vocals, a unique rockabilly sound is created that has been called "shock-a-billy" in the press.

They continued with "Done Nothin' All Day (just broke a heart)," the Buddy Hollyish "Inside My Heart" with nice harmony vocals provided by drummer White, and Beall's own "Movin' On Down the Line" and "Blue Angel." All the while Beall was proving that he is more than worthy of the co-billings he has had with performers such as Johnny Winter, Chris Spedding, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, Son Seals, Rodney Crowell, Sandy Brown, and John Hammond, as well as NRBQ, The White Animals, John Cale, Tex Rubinowitz, and the Tailgators, among others.

Beall and crew rocked the evening to a finale, all too soon, with "Honey, You Don't Know My Mind," "Drifter" and the revving country-blues-rockabilly of "You Sho Gotta Lotta What I Gotta Have Tonight."

I wound up having a better evening than I had planned, because I was fortunate enough to be able to enjoy the great sounds of one of my favorite Nashville bands -- Laurence Beall and The Sultans.