by Michael Buffalo Smith
GRITZ went into the studio with Cowboy for the recording of their all new album, their first in 36 years. In part one of our journal, we meet all of the original members of Cowboy, and hear music that is sure to turn the Southern music world on it's ear. The whole session was just amazing. One for the books.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16
Sitting in Duck Tape studio in Decatur, Alabama with the entire original lineup of Cowboy along with their original producer Johnny Sandlin some 35 years after the recording of their seminal second album 5’ll Getcha Ten, it becomes apparent very quickly that these guys have still got it. It’s almost like those 35 years were a simple blink of the eye, and they are simply picking up where they left off. All six of these musicians are locked and loaded, ready to create what may be their finest work yet. Total professionalism prevails, and why wouldn’t it. Cowboy is one of Capricorn Records’ charter bands, and this ain’t their first rodeo.
Tommy Talton is here, along with partner in crime Scott Boyer, and I am soon introduced to keyboard man Bill Pillmore, currently of Asheville, NC; drummer Tom Wynn (who played with Talton in the legendary Florida band We The People) and bassist George Clark, both of Winter Park, Florida; and guitarist Pete Kowalke, who now resides in Oregon. Johnny “The Duck” Sandlin is here, as is his bright young engineer Jeremy Stephens.
The atmosphere in the studio is nothing short of joyous. Some of these guys haven’t seen one another in 35 years, and they are having a blast. When things settle in a bit, the band begins working on a Talton song called “Tired of Living.” I have heard a version of this one on a CD Tommy shared with me last year, and it is a good one.
The guys are all set up in this open studio with the mixing console smack dab in the middle of the room. Johnny’s Duck Tape Studio is like no other studio I have ever seen before, more like a living room with soundproofing on the walls. Of course there is a drum booth and a vocal booth, necessary elements for separating the mix. Amps are set up in a kitchen area off of the main room. It’s all Sandlin’s style. He’s one of a kind. Unique. Just have a look at the gold and platinum records that line the walls and you get a clear picture of just how huge Sandlin’s legacy really is. There are Allman Brothers albums like Brothers and Sisters, The Duane Allman Anthology, and the Gregg Allman and Cher epic Two the Hard Way. Widespread Panic, Col. Bruce Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit, Bonnie Bramlett. So many great records. Including the band of the hour, Cowboy.
I sit for a while watching Sandlin as he listens to the band run through the Talton song, his eyes closed in concentration. It’s like witnessing a moment few journalists ever get to share. The intimate moment of connection between the producer and the musicians, bonded by the sheer power of a good song.
I have spent the entire day driving, so I have entered the picture late today. Still, I get to meet everyone and get a feel for just how special this project is going to be. Back at the hotel, Tommy Talton and I talk music for a while, and pretty soon Scott Boyer drops by. Somehow the conversation shifts to the recent death of the Osmond family father, which sets us all to reminiscing about The Osmonds, and all of their work with Rock Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. Scott admits he once had a crush on Marie Osmond, and before I know what has hit me, Boyer and Talton are harmonizing on Marie’s hit “Paper Roses.” Surreal? You bet. And I am loving every minute of it.
After a bit I head back to room 219. I am about to crash when the phone rings. It’s Talton, recommending a comedian who is on cable as we speak. I switched the channel, and laid down on the bed. The last thing I remember is laughing hysterically at a joke about Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Laughing myself to sleep. Now there’s a song title.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17
This morning I joined Tommy, George and Tom downstairs for the continental breakfast, and they all shared some fun stories from the past over coffee and cereal.
When we all reconvened at Duck Tape Studios at around noon, the guys got right down to business. The songs they have recorded for this project are all amazing.
At one point Dick Cooper dropped by to shoot some photos, and we had a great time with him as always.
Boyer contributed a beautiful song called “Maybe Miracles,” and the original plan was for George to play acoustic bass on the track. Unfortunately, that plan was not written in the stars, as there were internal wiring problems with the pickup jack, but he did end up playing one of the single coolest bass guitars I have ever seen. It defies description. Bill Pillmore laid down some smooth pedal steel to the song, which only adds to it’s ethereal beauty.
Other tunes the guys recorded include “Positive Flow,” written by Pete, an up-tempo number that reminded me of The Flying Burrito Brothers, if Toy Caldwell and Dickey Betts were sitting in. Bill turned in a fine tune called “I’m in a Mood,” a song reminiscent in some ways of Cream, and underscored by a funky wah-wah guitar pedal. And they recorded another Talton tune called “Comfort Zone,” another good one that features an infectious repeating guitar riff that sticks in your head and gets you to humming. “Too Many Choices” is great as well, lyrically reminiscent of Eddie Hinton.
At dinner break, I jumped into the van with Boyer and we all formed a wagon train over to a restaurant/bar in Decatur called The Brick. It’s a local legend, and quite a nice establishment, with an extremely nice wait staff.
Scott Boyer III joined us for dinner, and was telling me that his current band gigs at the place and they always have great crowds and large fun. He also commented on the fact that The Brick is always loaded with the most beautiful women in Alabama. I cannot argue that point.
It was quite fun doing dinner with Cowboy, and sharing a beer or two with these great guys. I can’t say enough about how many laughs we had over the weekend, especially from Tommy Talton. That guy is almost as crazy as me. (Tommy, I did say “almost.”)
After dinner it was more recording, more overdubs, and more just plain fun, but after three more hours, it was time to stop work and head back to The Comfort Inn.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18
This morning I met George Clark at the continental breakfast and talked a little about the project.
“I thought it would be great to get back together again after all this time,” said Clark. “It has really been fun.”
Clark and I speak about the fact that most bands have a central leader - The Allmans had Duane; Marshall Tucker had Tommy Caldwell; Skynyrd had Ronnie Van Zant.
“I think both Scott and Tommy were the leaders in this band,” says George with a smile.
I told him about the first time I ever heard Cowboy, and that it was on the Duane Allman Anthology album doing “Please Be with Me,” which became one of my all time favorite songs.
“It was really quite simple the way that one came together,” says Clark. “They asked me to play stand up bass on it, and Duane Allman knocked it out in two takes. He was just great.”
We were soon joined by Tom Wynn, and talked even further about all of the great music Cowboy has created over the years, as well as the new material.
Back at the studio at noon, the guys got down to work on “Comfort Zone,” adding some simply smoking lead work from Pete. In what seemed almost like a scene from a movie, everyone got real quiet, Johnny Sandlin raised a hand to the sky and said, “Let’s take it from the top.”
Next came the adding of background vocals to the song “Positive Flow.” Scott, Tommy, George, Bill and Pete gathered around a single microphone to work up the harmonies. After a few run throughs, we were all just blown away by the sheer magic of the vocals, prompting Sandlin to utter the words “Beautiful. Just beautiful.”
Bill smiled broadly and said what I feel summed up the entire session. “Wow. It sounds like Cowboy.”
Back at the hotel, all of the Cowboy band (except for Scott who had to drive back to the Shoals) gathered in one of the rooms, and we watched part of the movie The Departed, with many comments about how good a job Jack Nicholson did with the role as mafia boss. Exceptional, if you ask me.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 19
Monday morning we all gathered downstairs for coffee and our final get together. We sat and talked for about an hour before everyone had to leave for their own individual drives back home. Home was seven hours and one time change away for me, but at least I didn’t have the 12-hour trek to Florida that faces Tom and George. This had been one for the books as far as I am concerned. A dream come true. Hanging out in the studio with one of my all-time favorite bands and getting to know them, and find that they are all just great guys.
As much fun as the whole session has been, this was only part one. Talton and Boyer and Sandlin will be recording a whole other “side” for the album in December, with former Cowboy players Bill Stewart, Randall Bramblett and other outstanding players like Chuck Leavell and David Hood. We will be right back in the middle of the action, giving you a GRITZ play by play, as one of the South’s finest bands creates a brand new master work.
(Photos by Buffalo except where noted. Vintage Cowboy pics courtesy Tommy Talton.)
George, Jeremy, Johnny, Pete, Tom, Bill. Scott and Tommy at front. (Dick Cooper Photo)
Fillmore East, 1971. Tommy and George.
Scott Boyer, Johnny Sandlin and Tommy Talton.
Boyer sings at The Fillmore.
George plays bass at the Fillmore, 1971.
Tom backstage at Fillmore East.
COWBOY: Now & Then
Bill Pillmore on pedal steel.
Bill on piano with the band at Fillmore East.
Boyer and Talton having some fun.
Cowboy 2007 (with Rusty).
The front door to the studio.
Cowboy and the Duck reunited.
George backstage at Fillmore.
Pete and George.
Johnny Sandlin listens.
Pete and Tommy.
Pete back in 1971.
Sandlin and Dick Cooper.
Scott Boyer in the vocal booth.
Tom Wynn takes a break.
THAT'S ALL FOLKS! (For the moment anyway...)