The Reverend Horton Heat, also known as Jim Heath, has long said he’s a fan of Vancouver, declaring it one of the best cities he plays. Ask him why, and—besides the usual suspects like scenery, sushi, and appreciative audiences—he’ll tell you, “You’ve got one of the hottest rockabilly guys ever up there, named Paul Pigat. He’s cool, he’s really good.”
Heath put his money where his mouth is this past May at the Commodore, when he brought Pigat onstage with him for a cover of the standard “Rock This Joint” and an encore. But how did that get set up, exactly?
Pigat is happy to explain. “I met Jim a few years back in Austin at the Ameripolitan Awards,” he says. “I was about to play with James Burton and [Heath] came up and started chatting. I’ve been a fan for years, and was really surprised he knew who I was. When I found out he was playing at the Commodore, I got his number from a mutual friend and invited him out for dinner before the show. (Pigat is a sushi fan, and always suggests it to musicians coming to town. “There’s a little place on Commercial that has great sushi and presents it with dry ice,” he says. “It’s fun!”). He and the rest of the band are awesome cats and a blast to be around.”
Pigat is talking to the Straight from the road, reached in Fort St. John, where he is touring his new Cousin Harley album, Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis. He says he counts himself lucky to have hung out with, or opened for, some of the great rockers of our time, from Jeff Beck to Dave and Phil Alvin (with whom Cousin Harley shared a bill a little over a year ago at the Imperial).
The show was a memorable one, especially for those who arrived early enough to catch Cousin Harley’s set, which was every bit as enjoyable as the Alvins’. And there was a fun synchronicity, for me, that night at the Imperial. I started thinking, a few songs in, about how terrific it would be to hear Cousin Harley cover Johnny Horton’s “I’m Coming Home”, one of Horton’s most rockin’ tunes. I had had no discernible reason to think of that song, or to associate it with Pigat, so it floored me when the band started playing it.
In fact, it’s a staple of Cousin Harley’s set, Pigat says. “We were in the Netherlands a few years ago, and had a few days off so we decided to record a disc.” (The Dutch Sessions was the eventual title). “We wanted to do a traditional country rockabilly record and [bassist] Keith [Picot] suggested that tune. It all fell into place quickly and we got a good groove and vibe for it right off the bat.”
That Alvin Brothers show was maybe a bit less social than the Commodore gig with the Reverend, as the Alvins had had a breakdown outside Seattle, so were under the gun and didn’t really have time to gab. But Pigat recalls meeting Phil Alvin years ago at a birthday party.
“He never did get my name right and kept on calling me ‘Paul Pig Hat from Canada!’ Those were Phil’s wilder years, if you get my drift.”
The name Cousin Harley was born when former bandmate Carolyn Mark, who had played with Pigat in the Fixins, gave him “a western shirt that had ‘Harley’ embroidered on it, and started calling me Cousin Harley”.
Pigat’s current rhythm section includes snazzily dressed stand-up bassist Picot (who, Pigat says, tried to pick up his girlfriend the first time they met at the Marine Club) and drummer Jesse Cahill. Like Rich Hope and Billy Bones of the Vicious Cycles, Picot has a certain look to him, like he’s walked straight off the set of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, dressing the part of a rockabilly dude to a T.
“I think it’s important to look the part,” Pigat observes, when I mention Picot’s snazziness. “I’m not as snazzy as I used to be. I still like a good suit, but I leave the flashy part of the show up to the guitar.”
Pigat has also known drummer Jesse Cahill a long time. “Almost as long as I’ve been out west. His dad owned Old Town Strings in Victoria and did some repair work for me.”
Though the first Cousin Harley album, 2003’s Jukin’, features an entirely different rhythm section (Pete Turland and Steve Taylor) a casual listener might not notice the difference between then and now. The two albums even share a couple of songs, namely covers of Merle Travis’s “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and “Fat Gal”.
“I’ve always been a fingerpicker and Merle is top of the heap for me,” Pigat explains. “Playing-wise, his backbeat is really driving, and, although most people don’t hear it, I think his playing was really a cornerstone to what would become rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll. Some of these tunes have been in the Cousin Harley repertoire since the beginning. That’s why it was important to do the recording.”
Pigat notes that the record comes out just in time to mark Merle Travis’s 100th birthday.
“He’s a cornerstone of our sound, along with Motörhead!”
If you find that reference puzzling, note that Cousin Harley sometimes gets called “the Motörhead of rockabilly”. Pigat never got to meet Lemmy, despite having a mutual friend in Lemmy’s rockabilly side-project Headcat, but says “His attitude is what I try and channel on-stage—just a little more hillbilly.”
Pigat’s musical journey is actually more complex than you might expect, taking in far more than rockabilly and country swing.
“I’ve gone through so many phases I’m not sure what ‘my music’ is anymore,” he says. “I started off as a metalhead, became a blues guitarist, went to school to study classical music, toured Top-40 country, am still working on becoming a jazz musician, and make my living as a rockabilly player... I just seem to love it all. I was already into rockabilly when I moved west but when I got here the local scene with Ray Condo and Ronnie Hayward really solidified it for me. It seemed to be a music that fit a lot of the stuff I liked, and it stuck.”
As for Merle Travis, other musicians have gone even further in proclaiming their respects, like Ronnie Prophet, who seems to be waxing hyperbolic in this clip where he calls Travis—who, speaking of flashy clothes, appears to be dressed in a Nudie suit—“the man who created” fingerstyle guitar.
Now that is surely blowin’ smoke a bit, no?
“Well, there’s a lot of opinions about that,” Pigat responds. “It’s all about what you consider to be fingerstyle guitar. Merle developed a style that was unique to him at that point. It’s kinda like stride piano for the guitar, with an ‘oom pah’ bass and a counter melody. That’s kinda been done before, but what makes Travis Picking—can you think of anyone else that has a whole style of playing named after them?—unique is the sense of syncopation brought to the melody. It’s not blues, it’s not jazz, it’s not country. It’s all of them. He created that. Not to mention an entire chord dictionary that is uniquely his, some of which are near impossible to play.”
Pigat manages to elaborate a bit, no less, on Travis’s music on Blue Smoke, adding a few jazzy flourishes to the tunes, while staying respectful.
“There’s a little bit of direct quoting of Merle in every tune. I tried to find something to quote in all of them. This single note bebop stuff is all mine, but most of the fingerpicking has a lot of Merle in it.”
All but one song on the album is a Merle Travis cover, with the sole original, “Rosewood,” being a song Pigat wrote about Travis’s hometown. It comes out this month, in honour of what would have been Travis’s 100th birthday (“What better time to do a tribute album?”).
For some reason, however—and despite having written songs as memorable as “Sixteen Tons” and “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)”—Merle Travis does not have the name recognition he deserves.
“At least outside of the guitar world,” Pigat argues. “The main part of his recording career as a singer-songwriter was in the ’40s and ’50s, pre-rock ’n’ roll, so he kinda go eclipsed by that huge change. But you can’t listen to Elvis’ Sun sessions without hearing some Merle in that. Anyone that has ever tried to fingerpick a guitar owes something to him. I knew his big hits that others covered as a kid, but when I started finding some of his lesser known tunes that he sang, I found a great sense of humour and a really sophisticated Western swing fingerpicking guitarist. I was hooked. I think that’s what separated him from, say, a better-known fingerpicker like Chet Atkins. Merle was an amazing guitarist but was also a fantastic singer-songwriter as well.”
Some of the songs on Blue Smoke, like “Fat Gal”, might raise an eyebrow, based on the title alone, but that song—like the Reverend Horton Heat’s “Big Little Baby” or AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”—is in fact a fond and playful tribute to its plus-sized subject, what Pigat calls “a love song about the beauties of the Rubenesque lady”.
“If they had a negative connotation I wouldn’t do them,” he says. “These songs are about the positive and have that classic Merle wry sense of humour.”
As Pigat sees it, humour is an integral part to traditional county music.
“It’s not,” he suggests, “all about crying in your beer!”
As for political correctness, Pigat reckons there’s too much of it in the world now.
“As long as the humour is positive, I’m all for it.”
Which brings us to “Dark as a Dungeon”. It’s a coal-mining song, sure—like Travis’s “Sixteen Tons”, also covered on the album—but people familiar with Johnny Cash’s prison recordings will know that Cash, in covering the song, gets some rude titters from inmates, when he sings about being “less of a man for the lure of the mine”. It’s pretty much impossible to hear the Cash version and not think it was written as a caution against prisoners resorting to anal sex with each other.
But Pigat laughs and says he figures that was an accident. “Merle was from coal-mining country, so I really doubt he meant that!”
Besides Pigat’s recognizable, fiery picking, there are also some steel guitar flourishes on the album. Knowing Pigat hosts a guitar cabaret at the Anza Club with local players, including Paul Rigby (who will be appearing with Pigat on December 7), and given that every second steel guitar player you see on-stage in Vancouver these days seems to be Rigby (who, in recent memory, has appeared onstage with Art Bergmann, Geoff Berner, and pretty much the entire East Van Opry), is Rigby guesting on the album?
“Nope. “I’m playing the steel,” Pigat says. “I play steel on every Cousin Harley disc. I used to bring it to shows but I figure I have my hands full with the guitar, so I just leave it for recordings now.”
Pigat figures that for Saturday’s show, he’ll be playing a Bigsby guitar that Fred Gretsch gave him.
“The Bigsby corp helped out on promoting the CD, and Merle was the first person Paul Bigsby made a guitar for.”
With so many other hot guitarists in the Vancouver scene—we might also nod, here, at Petunia’s sidemen and Ray Condo alum Jimmy Roy and Stephen Nikleva—does Rigby ever feel a sense of rivalry?
Nope on that too.
“I’m not crazy about the term rivals.” he says. “Music is not a competition. The only person you should be competing against is yourself. That’s the person you need to be better than. It’s all about fun and pushing yourself to be better than you were a day ago. There are tons of great players in Vancouver, and I’m lucky to a lot of them as friends.” -
Cousin Harley hosts a launch party for Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis at the Rickshaw on Saturday (November 25).