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“Bigger Stones” — The Beat Farmers

May 9, 2010

Sitting on the top shelf of my CD cabinet, lodged between The Beach Boys and The Beatles (yes, I do file them alphabetically, like Daniel Stern’s character in Diner), is Tales of the New West, the debut album by The Beat Farmers.

That’s lofty company for such a little-known band, but I think they earned their spot. 

The Beat Farmers formed in the San Diego area in 1983.  The original line up consisted of Jerry Raney (vocals, guitar, drums), Rolle Dexter (bass), Buddy Blue (vocals, guitar, drums, harp, dobro) and Country Dick Montana (vocals, drums, accordion).

Wikipedia offers this description of The Beat Farmers:

“Their music has been described as an amalgamation of cow punk, jangle pop, roots rock, hard-twang Americana, country rock, swingabilly and Creedence swamp pop.”1

That’s a long-winded way of saying they played good old rock’n’roll.  Actually, “roots rock” and/or “jangle pop” do make sense, but those terms only describe one of the band’s two personalities; when Country Dick Montana (born Daniel McLain) came out from behind his drum kit, they morphed into a hilarious, beer-drenched novelty act.  He had a deep bass voice that perfectly suited his off-kilter songs about alcohol and mayhem; his manic on-stage antics (frat boy meets televangelist) were a memorable part of every Beat Farmer show.

In 1984, they signed with Rhino Records, who gave them a whopping $4,000 budget to record an album.  Steve Berlin, who’d just left The Blasters to join Los Lobos, produced Tales of the New West; it demonstrated the versatility and range of the group.  Released in January 1985, the twelve tracks included: inventive covers of songs by the Velvet Underground, Bruce Springsteen and John Stewart (not the guy from The Daily Show) — a rather eclectic assortment of artists, I’d say; clever originals by Blue and Raney; and a pair of Country Dick’s twisted tales (one of these, “Happy Boy,” which mines similar psycho-pathology as Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” with similar gruesome glee, got some airplay on Dr. Demento’s radio program).  The first song on the record, “Bigger Stones” (by San Diego-area songwriter Paul Kamanski), was an audacious opening statement.

So… let there be “Bigger Stones”:

It’s amazing what they crammed into 2 minutes and 20 seconds (and amazing — at least to me — that it didn’t get airplay).

The blending of  “jangly” pop elements (think “Needles and Pins” by The Seekers) with Springsteen-esque angst (think “The River”) works brilliantly.  They were 30 when they sang nostalgically about “my old past when I was young and feelin’ mean” and said, without self-consciousness:

“Now, I feel the pain of growin’ old.  I hear voices in the rain.
I see a vision of doubt that keeps rollin’ through my baby’s eyes.”2

It reminds me of the song “Bob Dylan’s Dream” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, when (at the ripe old age of 22) he sang :

“With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old.
We thought we could sit forever in fun,
But our chances really was a million to one.
As easy it was to tell black from white,
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right.
And our choices were few and the thought never hit,
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split.”3

Then, there’s the chorus: “Seems like we rolled bigger stones back then” manages simultaneously to play on the name of a famous rock band while also conveying a wistful feeling that once upon a time the things one did were more significant.  Of course, given Country Dick’s presence in the band, the phrase “bigger stones” cannot completely avoid some suggestion of testicular comparison.

I saw The Beat Farmers in 1985; they opened for The Del Fuegos at The Roxy in West Hollywood — a great pairing and a fantastic show!  At one point, Country Dick lay on his back, lifted a bottle of beer between his cowboy boots and, with legs fully extended, poured the entire contents into his mouth.4  Both bands later did Budweiser commercials, which cost them some credibility with parts of their audiences (yes, it’s hard to imagine now, but once it was considered uncool for a rock group to do a television commercial).  Too bad The Beat Farmers’ ad didn’t feature Country Dick’s acrobatic chug-a-lug. 

The Beat Farmers’ story came to a dramatically tragic end on November 8, 1995 when, 3 songs into their set, Country Dick Montana had a heart attack and died on stage.5   

Writer Paul Kamanski went on to form his own the band, Comanche Moon.  They released a mellower version of this song on the CD Old Dogs in 2001.  Jay Ruffin, a singer/songwriter from Mississippi, also recorded a decent version on his 2005 CD, Skeleton Key — but The Beat Farmers’ version is still the definitive one.

  2. Copyright © 1984, Warner Chappell Music Ltd./Bug Music
  3. Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

From → The 1980's

One Comment
  1. Jim Laffan permalink

    Guess Country Dick earned the right to be nostalgic in spite of being so young and all (sniff.) As for the “frat boy meets televangelist” remark: I hope they serve beer in Hell, Dick–cause you know if they do, it’s gonna be Bud. J

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