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Twang Happens

Somewhere between honky-tonk, punk and alt-country, Albany's Coal Palace Kings find success and satisfaction in playing what comes naturally

By Erik Hage

Bridge too far: The Kings at play. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

It’s sloping toward twilight on the outskirts of Albany, and I’m looking for the Coal Palace Kings. Houses have thinned out, begun sporting boarded-up windows and then disappeared altogether, as the last rays of sun lie heavy and golden against low industrial buildings. Tufts of grass poke defiantly through cracks in the concrete. Finally, against all instincts, I creep down an alleyway, the car listing from side to side on the deeply pitted terrain. This must be the lair of the Kings. Before I can doubt it, I hear the low rumble of a rhythm section. Pushing through an anonymous door and winding past boxes into a large open space, I find Albany’s premiere mudflap-honky-tonk-country-punk band faced off in a circle rehearsing while a few old fans spin overhead in the rafters.

The sound is country with an edge; it’s Hank Williams driving a 1940s pickup with a punk engine under the hood. As I observe, George Lipscomb (for once without his trademark cowboy hat) muscles the beat along with aggressive drumming. Larry Winchester chokes smoldering Sturm und Twang out of his cherry-red Gibson guitar. Jeff Sohn amiably anchors things with loping bass figures while veteran local player Rick Morse, tanned and fit behind his pedal steel, weaves crystalline notes out of the raw, frayed edges of the number. Standing with his back to me is Howe Glassman, the founder and principal songwriter of the Coal Palace Kings. Tall, thin and scholarly, he’s the calm center around which all of this unfolds.

This is a big time for the band. They’re set to put out a new album, Upstate, and they’re gearing up for a release party on Saturday (May 11) at Valentine’s. They also have a write-up in the current issue of the national alt-country publication No Depression. “We just spent the last two years fighting-recording-arguing-recording-playing, getting all our stuff down, all our internal problems,” notes Glassman. “Now we’ve got that down and we’re ready to play some music.” The result of all of that turmoil, Upstate, is the group’s third album.

After several personnel changes since the group’s mid-’90s inception, the Kings have benefited from finally settling into a definitive lineup, and the new album is the first to feature the current CPK membership. The enthusiastic, boozy looseness of 1999’s Everyone’s Got Drinking Stories has given way to an album that the members claim to have put much more time and care into writing and recording. Winchester, the member with the longest tenure in the band besides Glassman, is in a good position to evaluate the Kings’ progress, and sums up it succinctly: “I remember when I first started playing [with the group], there’d be two or three tunes that I really loved, and now, pretty much the whole set, I like everything in it.”

The Coal Palace Kings can be roughly lumped into “alternative country,” a genre that gathered momentum throughout the ’90s and that has certainly made countrified music more palatable to hip ears, the upside of which is that you hear fewer folks so quick to profess liking “all kinds of music . . . except country.” The downside, of course, is the proliferation of bandwagoneers and alterna-hipsters sporting snap-button Western-style shirts and fetishizing all things rural. (I saw more John Deere hats at a Ryan Adams show at New York City joint the Mercury Lounge a few years back than I had ever seen in one place in my life—and I grew up in rural Cobleskill, where we actually owned a John Deere tractor.)

In fact, alt-country has become so pervasive as to suffer an inevitable backlash and to see some of its early heroes exalted by the vast commercial public. Former Whiskeytown front man Adams was recently glimpsed chatting with Joan Rivers on the Grammy carpet in torn denims, while onetime No Depression cover girl Gillian Welch snagged a trophy at the ceremony due to her part in the monumental success of the old-timey O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. Alt-country godfathers turned avant-garde rockers Wilco currently sit comfortably at No. 13 on Billboard. After the smoke clears, however, there are still going to be bands like the Coal Palace Kings, regional groups who happen to have a distinct country influence and who don’t associate themselves with any movement. “This is what we do,” emphasizes Glassman. “This is what we like. I can’t see us going in an experimental rock direction.”

It’s also important to note that even though the Kings can be termed “alt-country,” their true roots lie in ’80s forbears like Jason and the Scorchers. Long before the emergence of the No Depression set, defined by groups like Uncle Tupelo in the early ’90s, edgy pioneers such as the Scorchers took the twang of their country heroes and roughed it up and revved it up. (Sometimes at the risk of life, limb and derision from fans of both country and punk alike.) And oddly enough, from a sociological perspective, country—the rawer forms of the genre, at least—and punk have enjoyed a nice marriage. In fact, in the late ’70s, the Clash were so enamored with Texas maverick Joe Ely that the two acts ended up touring together.

And that cross-section of disparate forms, that unlikely intersection, is where the Coal Palace Kings reside. For Glassman, hearing groups like the Scorchers, the Long Ryders and Green on Red in college in the early ’80s paved the way for his own music. “We don’t really draw people who want to see what this whole alt-country thing is,” points out Glassman, who, asked if he could still see the Kings staying true to their initial vision of nervy twang in the foreseeable future, makes it simple. “We’re not going to deny the sound. This is our sound,” he explains. “Jason and the Scorchers, 20 years later, still sound like Jason and the Scorchers.”

The Coal Palace Kings began in the mid-’90s, when Glassman dissolved his punkier outfit the Dugans. Looking for a new direction, he placed an ad in Metroland for a “Hank Williams and the Clash meets Hüsker Dü kind of band.” Glassman found an ally in bass player Steve Swalski, and the two went through a half-dozen drummers and cut a four-song demo, helmed by Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos, before releasing their debut LP, Pine Away, in 1997. Tours of the East Coast and the South followed, with guitarist Winchester coming on board between Pine Away and its 1999 follow-up Everyone’s Got Drinking Stories. As a second guitarist, Winchester brought not only a fuller sound but also his distinctive bursts of rocked-up twang.

Glassman and Winchester were the only current CPK members to appear on Drinking Stories. Lipscomb, Sohn and Morse came on board after the album. Glassman had known Lipscomb for several years and had seen him around at various local gigs. “It’s hard to miss a black guy in dreadlocks and a cowboy hat,” chuckles Glassman, referring to the drummer’s trademark headgear. When Lipscomb’s group the Staziaks went on hiatus, Lipscomb let Glassman know that he was available. Bassist Sohn, who originally relocated to the area from Long Island over 20 years ago, came on board after founding member Swalksi moved to New York City to pursue a career opportunity. Glassman had known Sohn since the mid-’80s, remembering him as a guy who was really into “John Hiatt/singer-songwriter stuff.” A chance meeting between the two at Parkway Music led to Sohn’s joining up. Glassman is quick to acknowledge Sohn’s integral role in putting the polish on the tracks from Upstate, both in the studio and at rehearsal. “He’s really good at orchestrating a song and picking out parts to work on,” says Glassman.

Morse, meanwhile, had been a noted pedal steel player in the Capital Region for years (with the group Badge, among others), first emerging during the ’70s halcyon days of country rock. Morse first started sitting in with the Kings a couple of years back, and, as Glassman puts it, “kept showing up to rehearsal,” a steadfastness that led to his membership. (Noted local singer-songwriter Michael Eck has consistently played an important role as a sometimes full-time, mostly part-time member, and you can expect to see him sit in with the group for their CD-release show on Saturday.)

The new lineup honed their sound through regular gigging, both locally and at such vaunted New York City roots-rock venues as Rodeo Bar and the Lakeside Lounge. Nevertheless, Glassman points out, “For as long as we’ve been together, we’re all still getting to know each other. Over the past two years, I’ve had a baby. . . . We’ve all gone through personal heaviness along with trying to put the record out.” But perhaps wanting to reinforce the solidity of this lineup, he’s quick to add, “What didn’t kill us has made us stronger, and I think we’re deadly now.”

A lengthy happy-hour show at the Garden Grill, in Albany’s South End, this past winter found the Coal Palace Kings in their element, having fun and playing to an approving crowd. Tucked away in a corner, playing to a stocked room of regulars, the Kings thundered through such new tracks as “Cecil King,” one of many in the CPK canon to immortalize the group’s touring-vehicle woes. Winchester’s reimagination of the guitar leads in the Beatles “I Feel Fine” turned the track into a country-tinged rocker. (“I had a hard time remembering that part,” admits Winchester, the group’s youngest member. Glassman wryly chimes in: “Larry’s not well versed in the classics.”) The Kings clearly enjoyed themselves and patrons gave the group their undivided attention, voicing their affection with hoots and sometimes even lighthearted heckling.

It was clear that the band liked playing for “folks,” for workaday denizens of their hometown. “You play [for a young, trendy audience] and they’re watching what chords you’re playing,” laments Winchester. “I’d rather play for the guy at the bar who’s bullshitting with the person next to him, drinking a beer, and then we break into a shuffle or something and they’re like ‘Whoo-hoo!’ You get ’em.” He adds, “Everyone’s put their time in during the week, and they want to have a beer and hoot and holler. And I want to be in that bar with the band. That’s good enough for me.”

That’s only one side of the group, however, for they have also been seen opening for visiting alternative-country darlings such as Tim Easton, Rosie Flores and Johnny Dowd. “We’ve got a little something for everybody,” says drummer Lipscomb. Bass player Sohn remembers a great reception from a varied crowd at the Final Stretch in the streets of Saratoga last summer. “People were very unabashed; they weren’t ashamed to dance to our twangy songs. It was clear that we struck a chord with them. I think we managed to tap in naturally, and I think that’s why the Garden Grill works so well. It’s like, finally, someone can go ‘Yee-Hah!’” Glassman demystifies the Kings’ appeal to one walk of life: “The old-timers like the beat.”

As for the new album, Glassman calls it “by far the most sonically achieved recording” the group has done. “[1999’s] Drinking Stories was a weekend,” points out Winchester. “I didn’t do any overdubs.” But a lot more time and care went into Upstate. Wayne Carrington, whom many may know as a member of the Oneonta-based alt-country group Carbondale Shafts, helped out with production at Dry Hill Studios in Oneonta. The album opener, “Bend in the River,” is vintage, country-meets-punk Kings. Elsewhere, however, they stretch their legs into other regions. “When Blankets Fail” is a melodic number reminiscent of Athens-to-Raleigh jangle rock, while the final track, “Cascade,” explores a rarely heard acoustic side of the band. Glassman also got some songwriting help from Sohn and Winchester, who pitched in with their recorded debuts.

As for where things will go after the new-album euphoria settles, Glassman claims national labels have been sniffing around, but says if nothing pans out, the group would be happy to remain a regional phenomenon, continue to play shows and keep putting out albums. Winchester adds, “I’m pretty much satisfied with the way it’s going now. I’m happy with recording and I’m happy with the interest we have, with playing to the folks that are drinking beers and enjoying themselves.”

Whether or not the Coal Palace Kings ever make it to the big leagues, Glassman is nothing but optimistic about what the future holds for the band musically. “I’m really scared about how good it’s going to be down the road,” he says. “If you think this is good—and some people do—it’s only going to get better.”

The Coal Palace Kings celebrate the release of their CD, Upstate, on Saturday (May 11) at Valentine’s (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany). Pispoure opens the show, which starts at 8 PM. Admission to the show will cost $10, and attendees will receive a free CD. Call 432-6572 for more information.

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