Good word: Honky-tonk and old-timey revivialism are alive and in overalls.
By Karl Byrn
When I speak with the Rev. Spike Stain, we always talk about Elvis. We’ll both tout the King’s out-of-print late ’60s collection The Memphis Record, noting how much we dig the swinging hard blues of “Stranger in My Own Hometown” and Presley’s maturity in general. Sometimes we talk about the Bible; sometimes we just get another beer.
Stain is musician Mike Steen of Santa Rosa, and he’s a genuine practicing minister, legally ordained for Christian ministry (and work with “other nondenominational beliefs”) through the Universal Life Church in Modesto. He’s a tall, imposing, yet friendly 30ish man who always wears denim overalls and speaks with the modest drawl of a Southern gentleman, a trait no doubt picked up from his childhood on a 30-acre prune farm in rural Merced County.
In his ministry, Steen has presided over several local weddings and funerals, “bringing to each the sacred quality it deserves,” he says, “in a very traditional way, respecting traditions.” He also sings and plays guitar in two hot rock acts with Sonoma County roots, the acoustic rockabilly-gospel duo Revival Revue and the tougher rocking country four-piece Haywire Honky Tonk.
Elvis himself once said that every style in the rock and roll mix actually springs from gospel music. Revival Revue make a strong case for Presley’s point. The Reverend entertains feverishly, shaking, jumping, growling, and exhorting his audience to believe in music that’s “inspirational, sensational, motivational!” Balanced by the steady, slapping click-clack of upright bass player Todd Troublemaker, The Reverend bashes out original rockabilly songs, folk-blues favorites, and gospel standards like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Revival Revue recently celebrated its 100th gig, a run that included opening slots for notable national acts like country hit-makers Rascal Flatts and indie icon Frank Black. The duo is now completing a second self-released disc, Original Sin. Their new material mines themes and images straight from the Old Testament, from the male/female parables of the title track to the Judgment Day blues tale “Me and Satan.”
Haywire Honky Tonk finds the Reverend back in the arms of secular material. The band have recorded some twisted Reverend blues originals like “Sheep-Killin’ Dog” and “Returning to the Scene of the Crime,” but the bulk of their wine-and-women repertoire comes from outlaw country heroes like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe and Hank Williams Sr. Not surprisingly, the Rev’s musical muscle in Haywire Honky Tonk is former members of Sonoma County’s bygone outlaw revivalists One Horse Town: Henry Nagle on guitar and pedal steel (now with art-pop band the Spindles); Paul Hoffman on bass (now with emo-rockers the Listening Group); and Jesse Wickman on drums (now owner and house producer at Atlas Studio in Santa Rosa).
“It’s not an exclusive thing,” says the Rev of the material he brings to these two bands. “Honky-tonk music, basically, is good Christian folk who have fallen by the way. That’s part of the drama and torture of all these styles of music. We’ve all fallen.”
The Reverend carries business cards that reference Isaiah 57:15, a passage he carefully selected from the Bible. In that verse, the prophet Isaiah relays the voice of God, saying, “On high I dwell, and in holiness, and with the crushed and dejected in spirit, to revive the spirits of the dejected, to revive the hearts of the crushed.”
That’s the message of renewal in the Reverend’s ministry of rock and roll. “I feel an exciting future for all these types of music, maybe because people are tired and fed up,” he says, before evoking a true Pentecostal fervor. “The world is crazy! It’s crazy! It’s crazy! People really want that old-timey feeling of being transformed by love and forgiveness.”
I believe what the Reverend is saying. I think the King would as well.
The Reverend preaches the good word with Haywire Honky Tonk on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Knockout in San Francisco. 415.550.6994. For info on local gigs, go to www.myspace.com/trailsendmusic.