The dog died and the woman done me wrong! Such are the traditional pains of the country music songwriter.
But as tired and trite as mainstream/top 40 country music can be nowadays, there are still times when a fan of the real deal can be convinced that, given the right boots, these themes can still be properly kicked around. You know, like Marty, Merle, Buck, Waylon, and The Man in Black used to do it.
Enter The Domino Kings – and their size 12 Tony Lamas.
The three-piece unit based in Springfield, Missouri, has been kicking around the countryside since 1994, and recently upped the anty with Life and 20, its second album. Featuring gutsy, down-to-earth tones and attitude by guitarist/vocalist Steve Newman, bassist/vocalist Brian Capps, and drummer Les Gallier, DK offers up country/rockabilly that oozes distinct originality despite its retro feel. Listening to DK music, at no time do you get the feeling they’re copying anyone, but there is something familiar.
And New-man, whose playing hints at many stylistic influences, is a guitar show-goin’ equipment lover whose knowledge of gear, combined with his skill, makes DK music a hellaciously sweet listen for vintage tone lovers, regardless of their tastes.
Vintage Guitar: At what age were you first exposed to music, who was responsible, and what effect do you think that exposure had?
Steve Newman: I’ve been exposed to music – country music – since the day I came home from the maternity ward. My family is musical and it was natural to see guitars, fiddles, and mandolins in every corner of everybody’s living room. It was something we all did in some form or another and something we all still do every time we get together.
Although I started later than most of them (I was 14 years old), music was always right in front of me. I think when music is presented to you like that, it’s bound to be more natural-sounding and feeling, even if you never play. It will always be just a little more familiar to you than to folks who didn’t get to grow up that way.
You and the band hail from Springfield, Missouri, a place with notable musical history.
I moved here from Hickory County, about an hour north of here, when I was 17, and man, I thought I was in the Big City!
But yes, Springfield has a great musical history – it was the home of The Ozark Jubilee, hosted by Red Foley. They had folks on there like Chet Atkins and The Carter Family – a moment of silence, please. And Ronnie Self, who was on Sun Records and a great rockabilly songwriter and picker, was from here. We also got Robin Luke, who had a number one hit in 1957 with “Susie Darlin’.” I think he was on the Dot label.
Springfield was just creepin’ with real-deal hillbilly music from the start. I don’t know how much it influenced me, but it sure is cool to be able to drive up and look at the house where The Carter Family used to live.
What was in your first rig?
The first rig I actually owned was a Teisco guitar and an old Silvertone amp. I broke ’em both and then my mother got me a Peavey Patriot and a Peavey amp with a 10″ speaker. That was after I started playing out.
When I started, I was borrowing my uncle Donnie’s ’62 Stratocaster. My cousins didn’t like to play it, so I always got “stuck” with it! My uncle sold it to a dealer, and I’m told it belongs to Charlie Daniels now. I’d love to get that guitar back in my hands some day…
Who or what most influenced you to start playing guitar?
I guess that would have to be my family. Like I said, they were always playing together and visiting in between songs. Then after I started, I discovered that girls liked it!
How did your influences evolve after you started playing?
After my family, I listened to the radio. Country and gospel with the family, rock and roll with my friends. I was into anything that had a guitar in it – Roy Nichols, Luther Perkins, Don Rich, Grady Martin, Pete Anderson, John Jorgensen. At the same time, though, I liked rock guitar like The Eagles and The Allman Bros.
There’s also a guy who was in The Fabulous Eels (Rick Springfield’s band) named Tim Pierce, who is a killer straight rock player. I know country music fans are choking right now, and I take a lot of crap for saying that, but that was a good band, and everybody can kiss my ass.
Who do you now consider primary influences?
It would be hard to pick now, because it seems that whatever I hear that strikes me today will come out in my playing, whether it’s a Pete Anderson guitar lick or a Floyd Cramer piano run. Sometimes it’s music from a TV commercial or a sitcom theme song.
As a teenager, you kept busy playing professionally…
Yeah, I played in Opry bands since just before I turned 15. They were music shows similar to the “Grand Ole Opry” or the “Louisiana Hayride.” The bands I played in on the side were everything from straight country to rock and roll, but my bread was buttered by the Opry bands.
Then, after I moved to Springfield the first time, I had some auditions in Branson. On the way to there, I started thinking, “This is no different than the other shows, they’re just in a different place. If I’m gonna have to keep playing songs I don’t like. I think I’ll just quit.” And I did. I stopped at the first music store I saw, sold everything I had, and didn’t touch another guitar for almost two years.
I wouldn’t say I was burned out…I guess I just had a mad fit.
And you went without a guitar for a couple of years, right?
Right. But I thought about guitar constantly – all day, every day, no matter what I was doing, I was playing the guitar in my head. And somewhere in that time I reached a point where I learned how to learn. The notes became clear on the guitar neck in my head. I couldn’t tell what key a song was in, but I could tell where all the notes were in relation to whatever the root note was. So no matter the key, when I heard the progression of notes, I could play the song in any key. Kinda like theory made ignorant.
When I finally bought another guitar, I suddenly knew all these songs. I learned more music in those two years than I ever had before or since.
What was your first band called, and what sort of tunes did it do?
I honestly don’t remember the names of most of the early bands I was in. I remember some of them being exceedingly bad, though! It seems like there were a few “Somebody and the Somethings” bands and a few girl singers. We’d play Dwight Yoakam, Highway 101, Don Williams, Don Gibson, Haggard and Jones, of course, and even Bill Monroe and the Stanley Bros.
At the same time, I was in bands playing everything from Bill Haley to Bryan Adams and Paul Young. And I kept playing in those Opry bands with my family.
What was in your rig back then?
I used a bunch of different guitars (mostly Peavey) straight into one of several Peavey amps or into about a dozen Harmony and Silvertone amps chained together. More buzz than a dope smokin’ contest!
Eventually, I graduated to Stratocasters and Super Reverbs. I never used any effects, then, other than reverb and tremolo.
Were you in any other bands?
From 1990 to ’94 I played in any band that would hire me, and some of ’em never even told me their name. I played country, rock and roll, gospel and everything in between.
When and how did the Domino Kings get rolling?
In ’94, I got hired to play in a band doing a high school reunion. The other guitar player was Brian Capps – he’s now the bass fiddle player in the DKs – who got my name from a music store employee who told him, “This guy will do the gig, but he doesn’t play in a steady band because he’s an ***hole!” Well, it turns out Brian’s as big an ***hole as me! We’ve played together, on and off, for six years now. We had a couple different drummers until Les Gallier came to the band. He really made a difference in our sound.
We’ve played about a million club gigs and essentially lived together in my van when we were on the road, so we all know the other guys’ tricks, trademarks, and dirty little secrets…for the most part.
When did you start writing your own stuff? Do you find the process fairly easy, extremely challenging, or somewhere in between?
I’ve written songs from the start. It’s always been a real strange process where the song comes to me as fast as I can write it down. Very rarely will I use a song I’ve had to labor over. Sometimes I can save phrases or ideas, but mostly they work best if they just come to me. That’s just my method, though, and everybody writes differently.
Apparently, songwriting is in your blood. Tell us about your Aunt Susie.
Aunt Susie was a staff writer at Acuff-Rose in Nashvegas a few years ago, writing mostly, I think, for Loretta Lynn. I’m not sure how many of her songs were hits because she doesn’t talk about it like that. Her last big hit was “Far Side of the Bed” on Lorrie Morgan’s Leave the Light On album in ’89. She can write using any method she wants to – sometimes she snatches a song out of the air in a grand gesture of high art, and other times she carves them out of the big blocks of everyday we all have.
The Domino Kings now have a couple albums to their credit – Lonesome Highway and the brand spankin’ new Life and 20. There are some major differences in tone from one to the next, and there are some stylistic changes. In your mind, how do they compare and how do they differ?
I think one big difference is that we’re an older, more experienced band now. Now, we see the band as more of one big instrument. When we did the first record, Les had been in the band a for only a few weeks, and about half the songs were either written or learned in the studio.
On the new record, we cut songs we’d been playing for a few months. We only learned two songs in the studio – “Time After Time” and “Steppin’ Out Again” – The song “Life and 20″ was actually kicked off the first record. It just hadn’t grown up yet.
As far as tones, I just tried to use guitars and amp sounds that fit the songs. I used hollowbodies on the last record, and when I play hollowbodies I always want to play hollowbody licks. I used a bunch of Teles on the new record, so I played Tele licks.
Can you give us a breakdown of the gear we hear so much of on Life and 20?
I used a slew of stuff – a ’63 Tele, ’54 Tele, ’74 Tele, a ’52 reissue Tele, a ’54 ES-175D with P-90s and a Bigsby, ’97 ES-5, ’60 Danelectro Shorthorn, ’67 and ’73 Martin D-18s, and a ’48 Gibson J-200.
The amps were a ’59 Bassman, ’57 Pro, ’59 Tremolux, ’60 Champ, ’65 Vibrolux Reverb, ’64 Deluxe Reverb, ’59 Pac-Amp Troubador made by Magnatone, and a ’62 Fender reverb tank. I also used a Danelectro Danecho delay pedal.
How about track-by-track?
Sure. Let’s see…”Borrow A Lie” is a ’63 Tele through the Bassman, Vibrolux, and Deluxe. “Will He Be” is a ’63 Tele Vibrolux into the Pro cab Altec for the rhythm, and the ’52 reissue Tele through the Vibrolux and the Deluxe for the lead. “Where Your Lies Stop” is the ’63 Tele, the Vibrolux, and the reverb unit. “One More Day” is the ’54 Tele through the Deluxe. “Alice” is the ’63 Tele and the Bassman.
On “Anything But You” the rhythm is the ’74 and ’63 Teles, and the ’52 reissue through the Vibrolux/Pro cab and the Bassman, and the lead is the ’63 Tele and the reissue through the Vibrolux, Deluxe, Pro, Bassman, and the reverb. “Deep & Black” is the ’74 Tele strung .012 to .064 (wound G) and tuned up a half-step, through the Vibrolux/Pro cab, Champ, and Troubador. “Life and 20,” “Don’t Be Indifferent,” “Time After Time,” and “Steppin’ Out Again” are all with the ES-5 through the Vibrolux/Pro cab. “The End of You” is the reissue Tele tuned up a half-step, through the Tremolux. “Tied to Trouble” is the ’63 Tele and the Bassman. “Letting Go of You” is the ’67 D-18. The other instrument is Les playing a mountain dulcimer handmade by his brother, Gary.
I don’t remember where I used the Dano, but the ES-175 is on “I Think My Baby’s Talking to the Devil” on our website (www.dominokings.com) into the Bassman. Log on and download it for free.
You wrote “Will He Be” after finding out your wife was getting you a Telecaster, right?
Yeah, I knew she was getting me a Tele for Christmas, and I wanted to have a new song to go with it. One of the few songs I just made up out of nothing.
It’s always good to have the support of loved ones. But what’s the deal with her running over a guitar?
Actually, it was two guitars – a ’65 Strat with the small headstock, and a ’64 Gretsch Double Anniversary in two-tone green. She is, of course, dead now…(pauses). No, no, she’s not really dead!
Actually, she didn’t even know she did it. We were getting ready to leave for a guitar show in Kansas City, and I had taken the guitars to the car, but couldn’t load them, because she had the keys. So I told her, as she came out the door, to load the guitars in the car. She still says she didn’t hear me. We got in – she was driving – backed up, and suddenly we heard some baaaad noises.
I got out to find the Strat had fallen out of the case and was lying face down in the driveway with tire marks around the eighth fret. I know it’s hard to believe, but I picked the thing up and it was still in tune! The case was in three pieces – she ran over it with a Thunderbird – this weren’t no Yugo!
Sadly, however, the Gretsch didn’t make it. I opened what was left of the case to find it dead, dead, dead. I couldn’t tell parts of the case from parts of the guitar.
I remained fairly calm, though…considering. She sat in the car with the doors locked and I kicked what was left of my Gretsch around the neighborhood for 10 or 15 minutes, then I went in the house, got another case for the Strat, and we went to the guitar show.
Steve Newman with his prized ’54 Gibson ES-175D. Photo: Rusty Russell.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.