Although they’ll forever wear the tag, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys are much more than merely rockabilly. On stages as diverse as The Grand Old Opry and “The Conan O’ Brien Show,” Sandy makes a point of acknowledging his equally important country & western, R&B and doo-wop influences with self-assurance and poise.
Big Sandy’s Top Four
BY CAPTAIN AMERICA
Robert Williams — that’s Big Sandy to you — possesses four things you don’t.
This quality is best illustrated by anecdote. The last time Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys graced Low Spirits’ stage, I arrived early enough to find Williams at the bar. This is his show, right? Man of the hour and all that? And he buys me a drink. The man is my role model.
Sandy is fastidious about his appearance — never a stray thread or follicle out of place — but he’s not persnickety. He simply has sartorial values that have mostly (and sadly) fallen by the wayside. My best clothes are what he’d wear to paint the living room.
You don’t hear this word much these days except in evangelical company. Besides being an elegant performer, Sandy is light on his feet in the style of eminent big men like Jackie Gleason. He carries himself with refined deportment.
Besides his sincere, cunning lyricism, Sandy’s croon is as smooth as a sip of 15-year-old Irish whisky. Think Johnny Burnette tempered with Marty Robbins. His is a voice that has matured into a soft yet commanding sweetness. This was only hinted at 25 years ago when the band formed; back then, Sandy’s vocals were closer to the standard rockabilly baritone with requisite hiccups.
In those days, rockabilly was being updated — not always successfully — to either a radio-friendly, stylistically static Stray Cats sound or the wails of Crampsian psychobilly. Unlike contemporary revivalists, Sandy and company aimed for the purity of the original rockabilly sound, as evidenced by their debut on garage-punk oriented Dionysus Records.
As unlikely as that pairing might seem, it illustrates what punk stood for at the time: not a genre but a stripping away of excess. To his credit, Sandy didn’t view a return to roots as tedious reproduction but as a starting point for enriched style and, most importantly, sophistication.
The key to his professional and artistic success is embracing pedigree without neglecting heart. Witness the sincere balladry of numbers like “Catalina” or “Spanish Dagger.” This sincerity didn’t preclude rocking out, as evidenced by lead guitarist and 20-year Fly-Rite veteran Ashley Kingman; he can play as baby smooth as Roland Janes or rip it up like Cliff Gallup.
Although they’ll forever wear the tag, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys are much more than merely rockabilly. On stages as diverse as The Grand Old Opry and “The Conan O’ Brien Show,” Sandy makes a point of acknowledging his equally important country & western, R&B and doo-wop influences with self-assurance and poise. (Check out the band’s performance of “Chalk It Up To The Blues” on “The Conan O’Brien Show” below.)
Low Spirits is the perfect local spot to see the band. The dance floor is adequate, and the band loves to see the crowd swinging each other around out there. The place is also intimate, with the sound quality to satisfy clubfoots like me — ones who stand near the stage to appreciate the music and lift their glasses to Big Sandy. But this time, I’m buying him a drink.
Captain America is a longtime nuevomexicano music journalist and zinester, editor of “Wig Wam Bam: Albuquerque’s Zine of Music and Nepotism.”