Turning a bunch of drunk stuntmen loose in a crowd is usually a recipe for disaster. But if the stuntmen in question are the Massachusetts ones of the musical variety, what you get is a twangy mix of King Johnson and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show with some twisted Willie Nelson sprinkled in.
Started as a jam band called Soup in 1991, the Drunk Stuntmen evolved into a scruffy band of country-flavored roots-rockers. But there's a depth of field here, lyrically and instrumentally, that the group felt hadn't been captured on record. To corral that talent and energy, they chose the services of pop guru and innovator Mitch Easter. "We're into trying out odd pairings and seeing what the product is," says Stuntman Steve Sanderson. "It didn't make any sense, so we thought we'd go and do it."
Sanderson admits to being a big fan of the multi-textured sound Easter captured on the early REM records. They had a friend inside the studio who pitched the idea to Easter of recording the band live-to-tape. "He really got off on that idea," Sanderson says of Easter. The result, State Fair, the band's fifth studio album, has the raw feel of live album.
It's a distinct departure from standard Stuntmen fare. Formerly, you got a rootsy bundle of chicken-fried twang fronted by a Southern rock-inspired, three-pronged guitar attack. But with the departure of guitarist Terry Flood, the remaining guitar duo of Sanderson and F. Alex Johnson has a harder sound. "I've never been much of a lead player, I'm a rhythm player writing on electric," Sanderson says, "so it comes out a little more rough."
Live, you'll still get the band's shit-kicking version of Willie's "Whiskey River" that sounds like a cross between Marshall Tucker and Wet Willie and a spot-on version of Roger Miller's "King of the Road." But the new record is more introspective than previous efforts. "The last year has been pretty hard on the band, a lot of personal tragedies," Sanderson says. "The record is the most heartfelt, and the first album we wrote without Terry, a pretty emotional record."
It's a truly collaborative effort, with all songs credited to the band, not any one individual. Sanderson says anyone deciding to pull a Robbie Robertson and claim all the credit would face some serious retribution. "I hope for their sake they don't. I don't take too kindly to betrayal -- there wouldn't be much left," he says with an evil cackle.
But even when the finished product gets on record, it's still evolving. "Songs are always changing," Sanderson says. "We play an awful lot, so we do get bored with arrangements -- we're always exercising them."
One form of exercise the Stuntmen practice is sharing the stage with a 27-member chorus of warbling seniors ranging in age from 72 to 88. It's not a joke. The Young At Heart Chorus tours the world with Stuntmen Sanderson and Johnson as band members, belting out show tunes as well as Stuntmen ditties. "They're pulling from our music all the time for certain things. When we do concerts, they sit and play with all of us or just a couple of us," Sanderson says. "It's woven right in into the fabric."
Sanderson is protective of the chorus, taking on a couple of Tonight Show producers who suggested in rehearsal that some of older chorus members should be moved to the front and the other chorus members should react more to the music when the Leno show was taped. "I didn't think they were very charitable and I, in turn, wasn't," Sanderson says. "I didn't respond too tactfully. It was a good show -- they should have left it alone."
His take-no-prisoners attitude applies to his own music as well. To help boost sales of 2002's Iron Hip, the band held the record hostage, threatening to pull a cut a week off the record until fans paid the suggested $25 price, which included a T-shirt and another enhanced CD. "I'd do it again," Sanderson says, laughing. "It paid for a big chunk of the record. Our fans rallied, sent us the money and really got that record out on time."
His new record is out, but Sanderson jokes nobody has seen it in the stores yet. I've got mine, I tell him, provoking a reply that shows he's learned a thing or two about the hostage business. "All right," the Stuntman says amicably. "And we didn't even have to cut off an ear."