All in the family: The boys in Southbound keep pushing on — for themselves and the fans

By Steve Wildsmith | (stevew@thedailytimes.com)

It’s somehow fitting that one of the few Christmas songs — if not the only one — the boys in Southbound will play on Friday night at Nater’z Sports Grill is a cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family.”

Guitarist Jonathan Cook sings Keen’s tale of a wacky Texas family gathering for the holidays, a tale replete with colorful characters, beer runs and Christmas carol references. It’s an appropriate song for this motley crew, but not for the reasons you might think.

Yes, the shows can get a little rowdy, and without a doubt there have been all manner of charismatic supporters who turn out when the band performs, turning heads and causing the boys to just shake their heads and grin. There’s plenty of drinking and cigarette smoking and the occasional spell of hell-raising, because these boys are still Southern born and bred and know how to play as hard as they work.

But the song is a fitting one because, over the years, Southbound has become so much more than six guys playing traditional country and honky-tonk music. It’s more than a band. It is a family — of the guys who play the music and the folks in the crowd.

It is, lead guitarist Jason Harris told The Daily Times this week, the reason the guys have kept going for the past six years, and why they’ll continue to push against the grain of prefabricated Nashville country-pop, determined to stay true to their Monroe County roots and the music upon which they cut their teeth.

“Whenever we get down, we always think about these shows where the fans are singing our stuff back to us,” Harris said. “Whenever you think of giving up, you kind of feel like you’re going to let somebody down if you do. We’ve got these people who have followed us for years; you want to make it for yourself and for your family, but you also want to do it for the people who have taken time out of their lives to spend with you and support you. Southbound is bigger than the guys in the band. It’s a family, and our fans are our best friends.”

Every band has a collection of diehard fans in its corner, the folks who come out to every show and stay until the end, raising sweaty beer bottles and singing along to every song, original and cover, but from the outset, Southbound seemed to facilitate something a little different — and with time, something a little bigger.

In the beginning, singer-songwriter-guitarist Randy Woody and former member Jason Russell were just a couple of buddies who liked to pull out the guitars and sing and pick whenever friends gathered for bonfires or parties. Woody’s mom told him about Cook, and soon the group was a three-piece. Even in the beginning, however, Woody had his eye on bigger things than just playing to friends and family members. Cook chuckles at the memory of those early days, when the two men — just a few years out of boyhood, really — sat around and daydreamed while cradling their guitars.

“I never really expected a whole lot out of it,” he said. “I was just a poor boy growing up living in a single-wide trailer on the hill with my mom and the rest of her family. When I met Randy and we started picking, I remember him saying that his biggest dream would be to open for Hank Jr. I said, ‘Hell, I’d be happy to open for David Allan Coe!’

“Well, we have — twice — so we’ve done more than I ever expected back then, when we were just sitting on his carport, drinking beer and doing more listening to music than picking. We were just talking, and I didn’t really plan on it going anywhere.”

Slowly but surely, however, the guys built up a local following in Sweetwater and Vonore, gradually making inroads into Blount County as well. The lineup has fluctuated over the years, but almost from the outset, Cook and Woody found Harris, who’s threw in with the guys and shared their enthusiasm for traditional country music. It would have been all too easy, Harris said, for the band to jump on the mainstream country bandwagon and start churning out carbon copies of whatever song was most popular on WIVK-FM, but that wouldn’t have been genuine. The music would have suffered, and the fans might have stuck around for a few shows, but in the end they, too, would have abandoned ship.

Because the music the guys make is genuine, however, the bonds between band and fans are rock solid.

“In Nashville, it’s all spectacle; for us, it’s about the music — when a song can grab your heart and make you feel something, that’s something that can be put to the American ear,” Harris said. “We’ve probably taken the hardest road by trying to keep traditional country music traditional. The suits in Nashville, I don’t think they even want traditional country music to survive.

“You’ve got so many undiscovered artists playing their asses of like we are, but in Nashville, every song them boys have got are about drinking a beer or driving a truck or dancing in the bed of a truck with a pretty girl. That’s a fantasy world. When you write about real life, you touch real people. Every song we’ve written, we’ve lived. There’s no fake stuff with us — it’s real life.”

And that’s what reaches in and grabs the hearts of the men and women who turn out to see Southbound play. A song like “The Truth,” railing against infringements on personal freedoms and championing the military, gives a voice to the taciturn small-town Southerners who don’t articulate their emotions freely … but they know how to sing a song that does so loudly and fiercely. The boys in the band are cut from similar cloth – small-town guys with blue-collar lives who use “sir” and “ma’am” without pretension and are more comfortable explaining their hopes, dreams, fears and regrets in a song than they are in person.

“It’s just like the last show we did at the (Cotton Eyed) Joe — it was us and (country artist) Chris Hennessee, and we were the opening act, but when you hear the fans sing your songs back to you, the songs you wrote and you put music to and came from your heart, that’s really what keeps you going,” Harris said. “You look at the people standing there in the crowd singing your song, and you think, ‘If I can just get somebody to take a chance on these songs or this group of guys …’

“If these people are going to come to your show and sing every word to your songs, there’s people all over the country you haven’t reached yet that are going to enjoy your music. We’ve got a good fanbase around here that loves us for our music, but there are a lot more people we haven’t even gotten to reach yet.”

The recent Chris Hennessee show wasn’t the first time Southbound has caused a stir at Cotton Eyed Joe. The first time the boys played there, they opened for former Trick Pony singer Heidi Newfield; they’ve gone on to warm up crowds for artists ranging from Gretchen Wilson to David Allan Coe — twice. The first time, Cook said, was when he realized that Southbound had become a much bigger deal than he ever originally anticipated.

“We were only supposed to play for 45 minutes, and most people were there to see the headliner, but he ended up being an hour and 45 minutes late,” Cook said. “We had to play for an hour and a half, and they just kept telling us to keep playing. Everybody stayed packed in front of the stage, and in my mind, people were getting tired of us playing.

“But we started playing ‘Here’s to You,’ a song Randy and I wrote in my mom and daddy’s trailer, and everybody was singing along. That just made me think, maybe this is bigger than I realize.”

The past year has been slower than previous ones for the band, but for the first time, the boys — including bass player Phil Davis and keyboard player Aaron Kirby – made inroads into Nashville. Local WIVK-FM deejay Ted “Gunner” Ousley has been a longtime champion of the band, and with two demos cut at a Nashville studio — “Back There Again” and “Muscadine” – his predictions of Southbound’s future success may be coming into clearer focus.

“The songwriting part was there, way before I even wanted to start the band, and we decided that’s one avenue of getting your foot in the door in Nashville,” Woody said. “People have been looking at ‘Muscadine,’ pitching it to Montgomery Gentry and Colt Ford, and some other song-pluggers we’ve talked to who have heard it all say it’s a (Jason) Aldean song. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg with the Nashville thing after doing this a lot of years locally.

“Really, I wish we could bring Nashville to us and some of the settings we’ve been in. This thing’s took on a life of its own that goes way further than Southbound, and we’re still honing in on what we do. The fans have helped us become what we are, and there’s nothing like going into a venue with a big crowd.

“It’s an awesome feeling, having that many people singing your songs back to you word for word. People know you’re there to raise hell, get a little rowdy and play some good ol’ country music — and they’re there because they appreciate what you do.”

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