|Jet City Blues Stories|
The Story of a Western "Blues" Man
By Shannon D. Love
Written and interview conducted in 1995
The morning sun reached up to the sky with all her passion, cast her gaze across the valley and down into town, just past the old Johnson place. It was mid summer and the smell of sweet sage brush filled the air. Lawnmowers were roaring early to beat the day's heat; Spokane was unusually hot and dry for this time of year. But despite the heat, a young Tim Langford road hurriedly into town on his old bicycle to plan the day's caper with the neighborhood kids. The new Beatles album, Sergeant Peppers was hitting the shelves that afternoon, and young Tim was $1.39 short of the purchase price. Tim was determined to raise the money before the stores opened that afternoon to pick up his copy. Tim had a reputation as a tough kid that was always in trouble. I don't know if that was a fair assessment, but nonetheless, that was the rap, and Tim accepted the title gracefully. Tim was always thinking. I suppose that was the problem right there. As Tim met up with his friend Forest Shoemaker that morning, Tim had the idea of retrieving pop bottles for the deposit fees, something that ol' man Jennings at the local super market down on 15th Street, across from the ball field always had a funny suspicion about where the bottles were coming from. Ol' man Jennings would hand the change over to Tim, and then would ask, "Well, what record is it this time, Tim?"
Tim was fast becoming a music admirer and connoisseur -- well before he ever took up any musical instrument. Tim recalls when he was four years old he would play his parent's old phonograph and radio all day long -- one song in particular on an ol' 78 called, Rock & Roll Uprising. "Man that song really knocked me out. It killed me!" Back then young Tim thought the bands used to play inside those little radios.
By the time young Tim was a teenager he had picked up the drums and could bang out a tune or two, but nothing too serious. Baseball and sports would monopolize most of his time, although he had the largest record collection of all his friends and music was the coolest, it did not consume his whole existence... until his first concert, ZZ Top. It was all young Tim could do to contain himself. He loved the excitement and euphoria that came over the audience. Tim knew then that he wanted to play guitar.
Young Tim borrowed a guitar from his good friend Forest Shoemaker, an old Harmony acoustic, so he could take lessons with his other friend, Tom Castor. The two started lessons together, each of their parents alternated driving the two back and forth. Tim was always jealous of Tom. Tom had his father's electric Gibson 125 guitar and all Tim had was that beat-up old Harmony. But Tim would get his revenge later on Tom. After three weeks, their teacher, Fritz Henkal said that the two of them could not continue taking lessons together, because Tim had rapidly advanced beyond Tom's scope of the instrument. Mr. Heckle thought it would be wise to schedule separate appointments for the two from now on. And, of course, this was music to Tim's ears.
Music came to Tim as a song on a record, and it was the records that Tim would eventually learn from. Tim had an ability to hear a song and within moments know how to play the song effectively. In high school Tim joined the jazz band. In those two years Tim learned how to read and write music and fuse musical styles together. Up to this point Tim was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Leonard Skinnard, basically, second generation blues fans.
On Saturdays Tim and a couple of his buddies used to get together and jam, playing a lot of rock and blues progressions. The bass player's brother, who was in the Marines at the time heard the boys, asked them what they were playing, and they told him, "Blues man!" Well then you should listen to this. And he whipped out an Elmore James and Robert Johnson record and played it for them. The three just sat there and listened, and Tim found himself mesmerized by Robert Johnson's guitar style. When Tim started to play the guitar, he found he couldn't listen to hard rock records anymore like, Kiss and Ted Nugent. When he found out how easy it was to play, he lost interest. But when Tim heard Robert Johnson, it freaked him out. He couldn't figure out what he was doing, how he got the sound, how he was moving his fingers. This inspired Tim to learn more about the music he was fond of, the blues. Tim found out that Robert Johnson was using alternate tuning to get his sound. He learned about BB King and realized that Clapton was inspired by all these great blues legends. And so the journey would begin for Tim, to learn all that he could about the past legends.
After high school Tim received a scholarship to Eastern Washington University as a jazz guitarist for the jazz choir. Tim pretty much thought the materiel they were doing was square and corny and felt that nobody was into the music. That resulted in Tim quitting after attending school for one year. Tim then joined the local community college and joined their jazz band, and would eventually take drum lessons to further his knowledge. Tim's real desire was to play his own music, but up until this point Tim hadn't met a lot of players that shared his zest for the music he calls the blues. None of the drummers that Tim had played with knew what a shuffle was. Every time Tim would explain a shuffle, the drummer would get this puzzled look on his face. So Tim took drum lessons so he would understand the criterion behind a shuffle, and then he could get behind the drums and say, "No man, do it like this."
Tim was in his own world, the blues. When Spokane bands were playing nothing but Top 40 music Tim was learning the blues. Tim would go to the local jams, and he would get up on stage and the players would call off some of the top 40 songs. Tim had no idea what they were talking about, so Tim would get up there and play blues. The players would snicker under their breath, and soon the Top 40 guys started mocking Tim as "The Blues Guy".
Tim had caught wind that there was this real good blues band playing down at Washboard Willys. Now, Spokane was not known for it's blues acts, so this was a good opportunity to see some real blues. And Tim was going to get in and see this band at any cost. So Tim, only 18 years old and in his second year of college took his preppie, clean shaven baby face, and all the determination that he could muster and strolled up to the front door of the club and handed the door man his ID. The picture on the drivers license showed a man in his late 20's with a full beard and long hair. The door man turned to Tim, smiled, and handed the ID back, and with a deep voice that had Tim literally shaking in his boots, said, "Enjoy the show, blues man". That night must have been fate for Tim, because the band at Washboard Willys was the Robert Cray Band featuring Curtis Salgado, before Robert had released any records -- a band that, by any stretch of the imagination, were beyond incredible!
Once inside, Tim found a table up front with a good view of the band and was ready for the first song of the night. Robert Cray started the set with a blistering guitar solo and Tim's jaw fell to the floor, mesmerized by what he was seeing and hearing, definitely awestruck of Cray's abilities on the guitar. At the break Tim approached Cray, but nothing but gibberish was coming out of Tim's mouth, something to the effect of, "I love your band, man. You guys are so hot!" Cray was polite and diplomatic and stepped back a step and said, "Thank you." Tim came back every night they were in town and watched every lick Cray played how he played his chords. He checked out the gear he was using, and checked out every player in the band. As Tim put it, "I tried to steal ever thing I could from him." Over the years Tim would follow the Cray band, and check them out whenever he could. He became friends with all the guys in the band, eventually helping Tom Dorm, Cray's sound guy, with the mix when he had to step away for a refreshment. This left a lasting impression on Tim for the rest of his life.
Tim finely turned 21 years old and was able to see all the bands that came to town, and all the while developing his craft. Tim got a job at the local Red Lion as a bell hop, and this kept a few dollars in his pocket. But Tim wanted to play the blues real bad. Tim tried a few garage bands, but those "so called" bands didn't work out. He wanted to play blues, and nobody in Spokane conceivably could play or understand the blues. Tim spotted an ad in the paper that read, Country band needs lead guitar player and bass player. Tim grabbed his buddy who was a bass player and the two set up an audition. As the two arrived for the audition, they noticed the country players were all in their fifties and unquestionably looked like hard-core red-neck cowboys. Now Tim having been in a Jazz band and being a blues lover felt that he knew enough about country music to pull it off. The rhythm guitar player, the leader and singer of the band called off the song. Tim didn't know the song so the leader called off the key and told Tim to try to stay close and do the best he could. Tim led off with a slick intro and the leader strummed his chords while singing. Tim had all these little county licks that he added in on the lead. After the first song the leader said, "Well that sounded just great. You boys want the job?" Tim was electrified. He wanted to play in the bars so bad. He told them assertively, "You bet! We would be honored to be in the Hombre band."
For the next two years Tim played every Friday and Saturday night at a club called the Swinging Doors. Tim was a paid musician, and doing what he loved, playing music. But Tim wanted to play something a little more up-beat. Tim still had his job at the Red Lion and the lounge was going to start a 50's night on Sunday nights. The general manager of the Red Lion knew that Tim was a musician and asked if he was interested in putting together a 50's show band. Tim thought it was a great concept and called some of his friends from college. Tim put together a trio -- bass and drums and himself on guitar and a singer as the front man. They called themselves, The Studebakers.
The night was so successful they added two more singers to the show. The band developed a good following so Tim thought it was time to leave the Hombres. His old band mates were real disappointed, but still wished Tim good fortune with his new band, the Studebakers. Tim really liked those old boys and was sincerely sad to leave.
The Studebakers evolved as the months passed. As the style of the typical 50's doo-wop sound was slipping away, it was replaced with the thunder of rock-a-billy music. And with that change, Tim managed to slip in old blues standards to the song list, a direction Tim was thrilled about. Now, the other members in the band liked the earlier sounds of the band, more like the sounds of a band called Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids. A few more months went by and the band members were becoming more disgruntle with the new direction. Tim was the boss, and he wasn't about to go back. Tim had some determined ideas about the direction, so he fired the whole band and started another version of the Studebakers. The band went hard core rock-a-billy and started to travel across the state and found themselves playing the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square and down in Portland. The Stray Cats were on top of the charts, and the Studebakers were in demand. Soon the band turned in to a punk-a-billy band, doing Iggy Pop and Lou Reed songs to a rock-a-billy sound.
The Studebakers were being managed out of Hollywood, California, and the band found themselves playing all over the western states. On one such occasion they found themselves in a little town in Montana. Tim recalls the experience, "Yeah were playing our set of originals, having a good time and this yeah-hoo starts yelling and swearing at me to play AC DC, disrupting everyone. So I told him to shut up, and he jumped me on stage, knocked me in to the drums and started pounding on me. These geologists intervened and took the guy out back and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of him. It's not easy playing the music you believe in." Tim had picked up an old school bus to travel to Southern California. The Studebakers recorded an LP while they were there. Unfortunately it was never released and the money never came. The whole reason for being in California was becoming senseless. Feeling stranded, living in their bus for months, the boys just wanted to go back home. Playing until they could raise the cash to make that dash for home became the band's main mission. Everything was going wrong. Tim recalls some of the band's frustrations, "Things got out of control, the music went down hill, the emphasis shifted from the music, to how drunk could we get on stage. We were spraying beer all over the place. People started stage diving. I just got real tired of the whole thing. And I still wanted to play the blues."
Shortly after they got back home the band disbanded and Tim started a new music project in 1986. Tim Langford had developed a nick name from the Studebakers -- Too Slim, for his slender build and less than towering height. Good friend, Gary Yeoman suggested they call the new band, Too Slim & the Taildraggers. For the next couple of years the Taildraggers went through a zillion drummers. In 1987 the band recorded their first song, produced by friend Wayne Eberspecher, called Swingin' In The Underworld, recorded in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The song featured some horn work that is not featured on any later recordings. Still the band was forming it's new identity, experimenting with keyboards and sax players. Then Tim fired the sax and keyboard player, deciding the feel was not right for his band.
The Taildraggers pounded hard all over the Northwest playing many of the smaller clubs and honky-tonks that featured live music. Paying their dues once again as they started anew. They all had been there before, but this time it would be different. Tim was doing the booking and the band was going to play the clubs that they wanted to play. The Taildraggers were rapidly developing a powerful regional draw across the West for their unadulterated Western Man approach to the blues.
In 1988 the town of Winthrop hosted the First Annual Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival. Too Slim and The Taildraggers were called upon because of their strong fan base from the east side of the mountains. The people came in droves, and the show rocked. It was a smashing success, with many of the thanks going to the Taildraggers.
John Cage returned in December, 1988 from California and rejoined the band as the new Taildraggers drummer. Cage had left earlier when the Studebakers made the move toward blues. As Cage puts it, "That's why I quit the band. Let's get that straight. I left because of the blues thing, man. I didn't know anything about the blues. I was only 20 years old.". Too Slim and the Taildraggers, as we know them today, was now complete. Tim Langford, John Cage and Tom Brimm.
In 1990 the Taildraggers released their first CD, Rock 'em Dead, and then El Raunco Grunge in 1992, both recorded in San Francisco, while on a California tour. Both CD's are now available on the Burnside Record label. The group's next CD on Burnside was, Wanted...Live, recorded July 3, 1993 at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival and December 28, 1994 at the Central in Seattle, Washington. Burnside wanted a project out that they were directly involved with. The two projects before were financed solely by the Taildraggers, with the first CD being distributed by Criminal Records. The Taildraggers met Terry Currier from Burnside, about the time they were finishing up with El Rauncho Grundge. The Boys signed with Burnside and Burnside quickly put out Wanted...Live, and were working on a new release that will hit the streets in November of 1995, called Swamp Opera, featuring Little Charlie Baty, Jimmy Pugh, and Charlie Musclewhite, all who have reached out a hand and helped the Taildraggers over the years.
The Taildraggers have come a long way and have matured over the years. Some will say they have made it, others say they've just arrived at the door. They had the luxury of touring as a traveling road band for their whole existence, which added to their mystique. And being centrally located in Spokane and playing the full circle, has probably been the Taildraggers' biggest asset. They don't particularly sound like any other band; they have their own signature sound.
By playing the honky-tonks and
festivals over the years, the Taildraggers dedication and hard work
throughout the northwest has paved the way and inspired many of our local
bands. They have convinced the public that live blues music is definitely
where it's at, and that their signature style, western blues, rocks.
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