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Hell's Half Acre

Hell's Half Acre: One Degree From Famous?

By Kevin Gibson

John Woosley was in a band with Rankin Mapother called the Kingpins. Mapother played in Cherub Scourge with Glen Howerton, who also played in Satchel's Pawn Shop. They all now play in a band called Hell's Half Acre, which also includes a fellow named Screaming John Hawkins, who played in a band called Edenstreet and who also plays in Hog Operation.

Yes, the Louisville music scene overlaps often.

"It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon," mused Woosley.

So what sets Hell's Half Acre apart from other Louisville bands? Well, direction is part of it. Experience is another. Certainly, ambition plays a role, but most of the serious bands in Louisville have no shortage of ambition. Could it be talent? Hmmm.

One thing that bears noting: Hell's Half Acre, in the course of half a year or so, seems to have undergone an amazing metamorphosis. Guitarist Andy York played on the new album, John Mann (Tim Krekel, Ten Months Later) came and went and then Hawkins joined the fold last fall.

One has only to listen to the band's two albums to understand the depth of the metamorphosis. The first disc, Blacktops and Blackouts, was a full-out, guns-blazing rockabilly romp - kind of Hank Williams Sr. meets the Clash. It worked, but sometimes came across as a bit gimmicky.

The new album, Under a Whisky Moon, slows the pace a bit, giving more focus to thoughtful songwriting and execution. It breathes and lets the listener do the same. The difference is almost startling and all the pieces seem to fit together better. Instead of feeling like a Stray Cats album, it bears the texture of a Steve Earle disc instead. It's serious, yet still has an element of fun.

"We don't think it's that different, it's just that our last album was more concentrated in a certain genre," Mapother said. "This time we let the songs just be what they were."

The first album "was more of a focus on trying to be in that particular vein," agreed Woosley.

Interestingly, the new album hits at the same time as the new disc by the band Valley (see review, page 20), another Louisville band that excels at a spirited roots-rock approach in a town best known these days for hardcore rock. (It also should be noted that Woosley supplied some backing vocals on that Valley album. There's another dot to connect in the Louisville "six degrees" game.)

Satchel's Pawn Shop has been turning out some good Americana rock for a few years now. Bodeco just might be the precursor to a full-fledged movement that could almost include the Villebillies, which plays an interesting hybrid of bluegrass, alt-country and rap. And another Louisville-area alt-country act just released an album as well - a band called the Shooting Gallery (review, page 20).

It seems only natural that Kentucky would have bands like this. After all, this is the birthplace of Bluegrass and we're south enough to sound southern, right? Or maybe this whole thing is just a natural throwback to the roots of all these Louisville musicians who have come and gone from this band to that.

Whatever it is, one must argue that Hell's Half Acre is one of the bands doing it best.

Recording The Right Way

The band members themselves prefer to think that it was the recording process itself that yielded the improvement. Producer Mike Wanchic was the guy largely responsible. If the name sounds familiar, it's because it is. Wanchic is John Mellencamp's guitarist. He has also played with the Why Store and alongside Willie Nelson, James McMurtry and a fellow named Bob Dylan. It didn't hurt that the experienced Andy York (Mellencamp, Nils Lofgren, Marshall Crenshaw, the Bottle Rockets, etc.) sat in on guitar.

"We were looking for a producer to do the second album," Mapother said. "We'd heard a lot about Mike Wanchic and his studio, so on sort of a lark I sent it to him and pretty much straight away he e-mailed me and said, `yeah.'"

Unlike Blacktops, in which the recording was spread out over several months - "piecemeal," was the word that kept being uttered - Moon was done over three straight weeks of working 11 p.m. until the early hours of the next morning.

Howerton and Mapother did the rhythm tracks first over the course of the first week or so and the songs began taking form from there.

Mapother and Woosley had put together some 20 songs going into the studio, recorded demos on acoustic guitars and sent them to Wanchic. Wanchic responded with his comments and the two slowly weeded out the best of the best, being mindful of which songs sounded the most cohesive as a group.

"We didn't want to have just a straightforward album," Mapother said. "We wanted something deeper."

They got it. Mapother and Woosley, who met through a mutual friend, seem to have hit their songwriting strides together; while they played in Kingpin and did some acoustic duo gigs together, now seems to be when it has finally come together.

"I had some confidence issues with my writing," Woosley admitted, "but I found out it is easier when you have a drummer and guitarist and so forth to help you flesh out what you hear inside your head."

Confidence issues or not, Howerton is as impressed by Woosley's ever-blossoming songsmithing as he is with Woosley's vocal ability.

"Rankin's songs have got kind of a funny tale to them, where John is really starting to hone in on his thing," Howerton said. "They have very spastic brains, which is a good thing when you're a songwriter because you'll never go stale."

The recording only made the songs sound better, he said. "Going into the studio was pretty extraordinary. We didn't know what to expect, be cause we were working with some pretty serious professionals. I was only there for a week but I learned more in that week than I had in my lifetime about being in the studio. Wanchic was like a conductor - he got us there. I never really realized how important song arrangement is."

Peter Searcy, who provided cello on "Lonesome River" and "One Lonely Night," when asked what he thought of the finished album, said, "I haven't heard it! I want to hear it!"

But, he said, "I thought the two tracks I played on were pretty great. Not because I played on them - I was excited when they sent me the two songs. Sometimes when I [guest on someone else's album], I really dig it and sometimes I'm kind of indifferent. I always try to do the best job I can, but this was something, when I heard it, I thought they really had something awesome.

"I wasn't a big fan of the first album cause it was too honky-tonk-ish for me. It didn't really grab me. But I knew if these two songs were any indication of where it was going, I knew it was going to be strong."

(And if you're still keeping score in the "six degrees" game, Searcy said he knew Mapother from back in the Tewligans days, he has known Hawkins since grade school and he is familiar with Woosley's work with Valley.)

Asked what his favorite track is, Mapother said, "It changes from week to week, which is a good sign."

Woosley said, "I listen to this album every morning when I wake up."

"I think the more you listen to it, the more you get," Mapother said. "You get the production and the fact that we took our time arranging it and so forth."

Indeed, from start to finish, Under a Whiskey Moon never fails to offer something new. Woosley pointed to "Lonesome River" as a favorite, "Because there is so much to listen to."

Woosley provided not only the lead vocal but acoustic guitar and electric lead on the four minute, 23 second mid-tempo rocker and Wanchic and the band actually spent more studio time on this song than on any other. Searcy's cello adds an effective layer of mood on top of Woosley's emotional vocal about finding himself in a better place: "Well, I'm going to the promised land/We'll have collard greens and black-eyed peas and castles in the sand."

The song details a place for catching up with old friends, listening to music, driving and where "the warm summer rain takes away all of your pain."

"I love it," Howerton said, asked what he thinks of the finished album. "It's by far the best product I've played on and represented. It's kind of weird, because when I got the final mix I hadn't heard any of the overdubs. I listened to it probably 10 times straight through trying to find things where I could nitpick a little, but the perfection of Mike Wanchic and Andy York's arrangement blew my mind. When you do the rhythm tracks, you don't know what the finished product is going to sound like."

Once again, Woosley, given the chance to stretch out, really added an element that didn't exist on the first album. He goes from the near falsetto on "Lonesome River" to straight ahead rock 'n' roll swagger on "Here's To Me" without a hiccup. And one track later, the album closes with "Missing You," a cool track with a jazzy lounge feel. It doesn't fit and yet somehow it does.

Woosley's voice carries a toughness like Bob Seger's but it is more sincere somehow. The songs are often stories about tough characters, just like on Blacktops and Blackouts, but there is more attention to melody within the arrangements that create more accessibility.

Perhaps the best example of this is "Kindness of Strangers." The jangly guitars give the song a Midwestern power-pop feel and the bouncy rhythm makes for unrelenting toe-tapping fun - but the song itself tells the tale of a guy whose life, for various reasons, has gone awry: "I'm not an evil man/But if you stand in my way, mister, you're gonna pay."

In the end, he gets his comeuppance and is left to sit and ponder his fate - and whether he would change things given the chance to do it all over again.

Two tracks later, "One Lonely Night" rides a beautiful duel of acoustic guitar parts by Woosley and York and tells the story of another life that has fallen to the wrong path. But the narrator of this story is different - he is filled with regret for a love he has lost along the way: "My innocence returned within your eyes/Like so much pain erased under your skies/But sometimes even cowboys have to cry themselves to sleep."

Another standout is "Doctor Please," a traditional country tune that, were Hank Sr. alive today, he would be envious of. York lays a killer 12-string guitar lick over Woosley's pleading vocal and acoustic rhythm, while Howerton plays percussion on a suitcase - and they nailed it perfectly. "Doctor please, oh please/Stitch up my heart/That little girl's gone and torn it all apart/Codeine don't ease the pain, 'cause she's running through my veins/Doctor please stitch up my heart." You don't get more country than that.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Now that Hawkins is in place on lead guitar, what happens next? That is anyone's guess, including the band's.

At the time of this interview, the band hadn't played live in several months but had been rehearsing with Hawkins.

"It's really come together better than I even anticipated," Woosley said.

Hawkins was drawn into the mix largely because he has known Mapother for 15-plus years (there's that six degrees thing at work again). Also, he noted that Mapother - who works for local marketing company Red7E in his other life - is someone who knows how to draw interest toward the band.

"They sold, I think, almost 4,00 units of the first record without any real serious promotion," Hawkins said. "I know Rankin took out some ads in Mojo and those sorts of magazines, but to sell 4,000 units like that is pretty impressive, especially over the course of like a year and a half."

Hawkins, who obviously has a pretty good reputation as a guitarist in these parts, not only plays in Hog Operation but also plays with the Predators. He is also enrolled in college classes right now - to the tune of 16 credit hours. But finding time to join Hell's Half Acre was something he saw as worthwhile.

"I trust Rankin," Hawkins said. "Most of the time when people call me, if it's not anyone I know or anyone I've worked with, I don't fool with it, because I've got so many things going on. But I know Rankin and he's an unbelievable writer, so it was kind of a no-brainer. Plus, it was pretty good timing - and I don't get to play a whole lot of electric guitar anymore."

Mapother feels the band scored a victory getting Hawkins. He said Mann was an excellent guitarist and team player but, "I feel like we got a pretty good deal."

Hell's Half Acre kicked things off April 23 with a CD release party and hopes to play more and more as summer hits. Obviously, they can't afford a full-fledged tour without a backing label, but they plan to "do the 300-mile thing," trying to book shows around the region, from Chicago to Nashville, Mapother said

Right now, the disc can be found at Miles of Music and CD Baby and has been getting attention in Europe as well. As with any new product, the sky is the limit.

"I would love to see us get some sort of a distribution deal," Howerton said. Hopefully that would help put us more on a national map. Also I would love to see some stuff happen in Europe; I know we are making sales in Europe. For some reason, Europeans have a wider variety of taste in music. They seem to respect American music a lot more than Americans respect it."

But, he said, time will tell. "We're trying to take this at a patient pace. We don't want to rush anything. This is one of the most solid bands I've played in. The writing and the prolific mentality of what Rankin and John, our singer, are doing are just so strong. It took me less than 30 minutes to decide that this is the band I need to go with."

Ditto Hawkins. "I think it's a really strong piece of work. The production is great, the songs are great and it's well performed. I'm pleased with it. It's giant steps ahead of the first one in many ways. It seems like when they started up, they had a style in mind and focused on that style and now it's more like they are just writing songs."

And that may be the best sign of all - that the new album definitely shows the band is going in the right direction.

"It's more about the songs," Howerton said. "That's the direction we want to go. It's a matter of keeping it tight. The first album I was impressed by, it but rockabilly to me is kind of a blast from the past. There are guys who are awesome at it; I just think it wasn't really up our alley. But I think, for marketability reasons, the product we have now versus the first one - there is no comparison."

So might this thing be picked up for distribution? That's what Hell's Half Acre is hoping. Hawkins said if the situation is right, they could certainly count him as interested in making this a full-time gig.

"Just because somebody [at a label] wants to talk to you about it, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good deal or the right thing to do," said Hawkins, who, as a former member of Edenstreet, knows the cruel stab of having a label deal be shot down in the prime of its life. "I would be open to the idea, but you've really got to know exactly what's involved.

But I think it's kind of a no-brainer for a label at this point. The record is done. Production-wise, I feel it is national release quality."

"No matter what, we'll stay strong in what we're trying to do," Howerton said. "We're going to go as far as we can."

And who knows? One day, if Hell's Half Acre breaks big, there will be any number of musicians around Louisville who will be saying, "Hey, I used to play in a band with one of those guys."

And just like that, they'll all be one degree closer to someone famous.