Twangy-first-century guitar men

HighTone's most precious country assets storm the nation

The TwangBangers are sitting in a Seattle parking lot, trying to figure out what to do about a smoking clutch on a 1966 tour bus that once belonged to trumpeter Danny Davis, of Nashville Brass fame. It's an unlikely start for a unique month-long tour featuring four of HighTone Records' finest country artists: Bill Kirchen, formerly of Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen; Merle Haggard lead guitarist Redd Volkaert; San Francisco pedal steel virtuoso (and Amoeba Records owner) Joe Goldmark; and hardcore honky-tonk singer Dallas Wayne. Pondering the bus situation, Wayne jokes, "Now I have more reasons to hate Danny Davis."

Despite the inauspicious moment, the TwangBangers are having a great time. "It's already a lot of fun to be on the road with these guys," says Kirchen.

Adds Wayne, "I'm rooming with Redd, and I have already laughed enough to make this entire gig a success."

The TwangBangers tour isn't the first package show HighTone has put on the road, but it is the first all-country lineup. HighTone had a successful run several years ago with its Roadhouse Revival, featuring Dale Watson, Big Sandy and others. More recently, the acoustic Monsters of Folk tour assembled Dave Alvin, Tom Russell and several other singer/songwriters for a series of shows. Wayne describes the current arrangement as somewhat different from the previous HighTone tours. "It's sort of like an old-time country music package show. We are all on stage together, and take turns doing a couple of songs each. That way, we get to back each other up."

Kirchen sees the setup on the current tour as similar to past experiences. "There is some reminiscence of the old Commander Cody lineup. We had four distinct lead vocalists in that band, and a number of hot instrumentalists. You can do a lot with that arrangement."

There is no doubt that the TwangBangers' three lead musicians — Kirchen, Goldmark and Volkaert — are among the best in the business. "They are three of the hottest lead players you will find anywhere, and they all do vocals as well," says Wayne. "I get to just stand there and play rhythm guitar. This is the best gig a singer could possibly have."

The double-Telecaster attack of Kirchen and Volkaert complements Goldmark's sweet pedal steel. In demand as a studio musician for years, Goldmark has toured with artists as diverse as David Byrne and Taj Mahal. He also has several solo albums out. Filling out the TwangBangers lineup: full-time Kirchen band members Jack O'Dell on drums and Johnny Castle on bass, whom Wayne calls "one hot rhythm section."

On a practical level, the TwangBangers tour is an economical way of promoting the four new HighTone releases by each of the featured artists. Goldmark's oddly titled Strong Like Bull ... But Sensitive Like Squirrel! is his second HighTone release, and serves as an interesting showcase of his wide-ranging steel guitar style, from pure country to soulful R&B. Volkaert also is promoting his second HighTone product, No Stranger to a Tele.

Wayne has two HighTone albums — Here I Am in Dallas and Big Thinkin' — and several others he released while living in Finland. His vibrating baritone is perfectly suited to the heavy honky-tonk ballads and barroom country rockers that make up his repertoire. "Big Thinkin' was developed over about six months' time as a concept album with my pal Robbie Fulks. He's a silly bastard, but I love writing with him," says Wayne. "The new one was done in 10 days, from rehearsal to recording. I had six songs that I wrote on the road, and Bruce [Bromberg] and Larry [Slavens] helped me find the rest of them."

Kirchen is pushing his third HighTone release, Tied to the Wheel. "I wanted to get back to my roots on this one, back to the old 'dieselbilly' sound," he says. "There are a few new tunes, a few by some of my old buddies, and a few of my old favorites." That said, Tied is a fine slice of contemporary country and trucking tunes, and may be one of Kirchen's best efforts yet.

So far, the TwangBangers are thrilled with the response from the crowds. "You get the guitar nuts, the steel nuts and the folks that just like good honky-tonk songs," says Kirchen.

As for the onstage magic: "You've got four people who are alike in terms of their respect for musical tradition, but come from very different places," says Wayne. "We don't even know each other, but we are now in a band. It's sort of like the Monkees, but we're good."

The TwangBangers play Thurs., Oct.4., at Smith's Olde Bar, 1578 Piedmont Ave. Doors open at 8 p.m. $10. 404-875-1522. www.smithsoldebar.com.??