Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Buck Stops Here

By Jim Ridley

AUGUST 4, 1997:  When Sand Sheff says getting out of Oklahoma was "a life-or-death situation," he's not kidding. Raised in the Ozark town of Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee nation, Sheff grew up nursing a poetic bent "in a place that didn't appreciate literacy," he says in a dustblown drawl. He started drinking heavily and got into other things. He was 14 then. But he escaped Tahlequah, moved around the West, and even worked as a cowboy at a dude ranch in Utah before winding up in Nashville two years ago.

It wasn't the country music he heard coming out of Nashville that lured him here. While training horses in Fry Canyon, Utah, the only country he could get on his truck radio was pale, wan stuff. "They'd taken a folk medium and turned it into jingles," explains the rangy, suntanned Sheff, who just turned 30 last month. "The people weren't writing for themselves or their community--they were writing just to please some record company."

Nevertheless, a friend he'd known in Durango, Colo., Brian Ray, convinced him to make the move to Music City. Sheff now likes Nashville and a lot of the music it produces in local clubs; he calls Hank Flamingo "the best band in this town." But he still believes "this town hasn't produced a Kris Kristofferson since Kris Kristofferson." When you hear Sheff's band, Buck 50, you'll be able to tell he's not angling to make the cover of Country Weekly.

On its debut CD Red Dirt Road, recorded last February, only four months after Sheff arrived in Nashville, Buck 50 creates a dry lonesome sound that's at least three decades--and several thousand dollars--removed from the booming mixes on current hit rotation. That has a lot to do with Sean Ray's pedal steel and Gretchen Priest's fiddle, both of which add color to Sheff's craggy vocals.

But don't call 'em retro. In his earthy, idiosyncratic songs, Sheff dodges the conventional wisdom that says old-sounding tunes can't incorporate up-to-date subject matter. "It's a small world after all/When teenagers sniff inhalants/And become unknown assailants/And take you out to slam-dance at the rave," he rants in "Corn Dogs and Cocaine."

The musical tall tales on Red Dirt Road tend to get the most attention--especially "Nevada Avenue," in which Sheff's "artsy Okie fool" en route to a "liberal arts school" gets sidetracked by a police chase and a tattooed teenage metal queen. But his more pensive songs depict the timeless pull between city and country living from both sides. It's an ambivalence well expressed by a former Tahlequan now living in Nashville.

Sheff put his band together last year only three weeks before the record was cut. Drummer Cheryl Bradley was found through a classified ad; steel guitarist Sean Ray was the brother of Sheff's friend Brian, who's now a member of Farmer Not So John. It was Farmer Not So John's lead singer, Richard McLauren, who heard the band's first gig at Jack's Guitar Bar and convinced them to record "before you practice too much." McLauren not only produced Buck 50's record, he also issued it himself on his Monkey Finger label, which already has a new Buck 50 album in the can for this fall.

To support his music, Sheff has worked at Shoney's, inspected music boxes, and shrink-wrapped Christian videos in a factory; right now he's working at Harpeth Valley Landscaping. Of course, the people back home think he's selling out. "I come from rough stock," says Sheff. "They thought I'd tried to slick everything up and failed miserably." We say keep on failing. Buck 50 plays with Hayseed 9 p.m. Thursday at 12th & Porter.

True to form Buck 50

It took only a handful of shows for The Spot to outgrow its home in the upstairs performing space above Bongo Java. Created by Next Move Entertainment to showcase Nashville's unheralded urban artists, The Spot climaxed and ended its run at Bongo Java over the Fourth of July weekend with a jam-packed explosion of ideas, funk, positive vibes, and grassroots support.

Backed by a spare but supple three-piece house band, the lineup ranged from quiet-storm vocalist Anji to poet Jeff Carr, who provided the evening's manifesto with a call for "black stuff" in mass culture. Jazz-influenced rapper Count Bass D brought down the house with a preview of new material, which mixed old-school scratching with looped samples and tricky rhyme schemes. No less outstanding were the open-mic sets; the interludes by ferociously free-styling DJs sizzled with good-natured rivalry.

In short, the shows to date have been everything clubgoing in Nashville so often isn't: spontaneous, lively, and joyous, with lots of cameraderie and even (gasp!) dancing. They've also been crowded as hell--a sign to local club owners that Nashville audiences are starved for black music in all its forms. To accommodate overflow crowds, The Spot relocates this Sunday to Henry's Coffeehouse on Broadway. Poet Ketrina Lewis, vocalist Velvet Jones, and Utopia State are the featured guests, and space is reserved as always for DJs, poets, singers, and musicians who want to sign up at the door. Could this really be Music City after all?--Jim Ridley

Nashville drummer par excellence Mark Horn, who has played with everyone from Tim Carroll and Amy Rigby to Sonny Burgess and the Amazing Delores, will be behind the kit when Austin neo-honky-tonkers the Derailers play the Sutler Thursday night. Horn, who recently replaced drummer Terry Kirkendall in the band, says he knew at his audition that working with the Derailers would be a good match. "It was obvious the minute they asked me if I could play in the styles of [Buckaroo] Willie Cantu and [Stax-Volt legend] Al Jackson," says Horn, who has been touring with the group for the past couple of weeks. As his new bandmates have doubtless discovered, they got what they asked for: Few drummers play with Horn's sense of groove, and fewer still possess his devastating sense of humor. The Derailers, who currently record for Watermelon, are reportedly weighing offers from several major labels.--Bill Friskics-Warren

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