Pictured, from left: Chris Williams, Jorg Eichfuss, Wes Kyatt, Frank Morrow, Ray Holmes, Sandi Morrow and Ollin Landers make up Hank Williams Jr. tribute band All My Rowdy Friends.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Outlaw Country music fans flocked to the Gadsden Amphitheater for the first installment in this year’s Summer Concert Series on July 2, braving the humid Independence Day weekend weather to witness a family tradition.
The Hank Williams Jr. Tribute Band All My Rowdy Friends brought a bit of Bocephus to Etowah County, with the members perfecting old habits to perform a memorable show in the City of Champions.
“It was an awesome venue,” said lead and rhythm guitarist Ray Holmes. “I loved the fact that it was made out of stone, and how old it was. The sound was great – it was a very nice stage, and the sound crew were top notch. We met lots of nice people and the staff was very good to us! I hope we can get back there soon…we enjoyed playing in Gadsden very much!”
“We really enjoyed the concert,” said Tammy Watson, who attended the show with her husband Phillip and friends. “We actually thought [lead singer Frank Morrow] sounded and looked just like Hank Williams Jr. standing up there! I think they will always remember Gadsden, because of all the willow flies flying around the stage. We always try to go to the cover band concerts at the Amphitheater after First Friday – they’re always a success and very enjoyable!”
All My Rowdy Friends formed in 2009, following an encouraging nudge from a friend of lead vocalist Frank Morrow. While tribute bands surged, Morrow’s friend suggested he pursue a Hank Williams Jr. tribute band, a nod to Morrow’s natural appearance, which favors the “A Country Boy Can Survive” singer. Morrow, alongside his wife, Sandi, were already avid performers, enjoying jam sessions where audiences requested he portray Hank Williams Jr., but All My Rowdy Friends’ (lovingly coined after a Bocephus original) inception marks Morrow’s official musical debut in a traditional band format.
“I’m not going to say I was raised up playing music, but I grew up just loving music of all kinds,” said Morrow, recalling how music influenced his life. “I can contribute that to my mother and father both. At 15 or 16 years old, my parents were both into country music and big band music. My brother ended up getting into a band, and instead of me playing in the band too, I just ended up following his band around everywhere.”
“I started singing, I’m not sure how long ago, but one of my first experiences (not even in a band) was I got pulled up on stage with a couple of guys at a dueling piano bar. We did a Hank song, and I played spoons along with the piano while I sang. There was a huge standing ovation at the end of it. It’s a rush when you get a crowd response like that. It pumps you up on stage. You may have a crowd of 10 people or 100,000 people, but if the crowd response is good, you’re going to feel good on stage and you’ll always put on a better show.”
Morrow’s musical inspirations resided with classics like Elvis, Hank Williams Sr. and the music of Motown. In the 1960s, he transitioned to rock and roll with The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd before finding his niche with country in the 1970s, listening to legends like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Waylin Jennings. Cash, Nelson, Haggard and Jennings dwelt within the subgenre of outlaw country, a movement which eschewed the formulaic simplicity and polished look and sound of Nashville to adopt a rugged sense of originality rooted in blues, rockabilly and southern rock.
Sandi, who joins her husband in All My Rowdy Friends as a “Lightnin,’” vocalist and percussionist, shared that music served as a source of entertainment for herself and others her entire life. From a child standing in front of a mirror, singing into a makeshift microphone hairbrush, to her covers of iconic women like June Carter Cash, Janis Joplin, Miranda Lambert and Pat Benatar, Sandi’s wide vocal range and energetic stage presence adds another dimension to All My Rowdy Friends. Originally from Goldsboro, North Carolina, she and Morrow (a Mount Olive native) crossed paths with Holmes to initiate the band’s evolution.
“My dad was a country music singer and guitar player,” said Holmes, reflecting on his relationship with music. “There was always music around the house and instruments, and [my dad] taught me how to play my first set of guitar chords. I can’t remember when I wasn’t in a band…I’ve done it all my life. I love it; it’s just in my blood.”
Holmes, who earmarked his musical influences as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Hank Williams and George Jones, performed with bands like Blue Steel, Brouha, Flashback and Avalanche. During his time with Avalanche, Holmes opened for The Little River Band, Charlie Daniels, The Bama Band, Bucky Covington and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The following members comprise All My Rowdy friends, each bringing a unique talent to the band.
Growing up in Germany, lead drummer Jorg Eichfuss developed a passion for drumming which translates into his career at North Carolina’s only drum shop. Recent performances include stints with Tim Cifers, Aaron Hamm, The Big River Band and Troubadour Sons.
Lead and rhythm guitarist and vocalist Chris Williams channeled Chet Atkins from an early age, inspired by his father’s friends and musicians like Eric Clapton, Roy Nichols and Waylon Jennings. Since 16, Williams participated in numerous country and southern rock bands, opening for national acts like Exile, Daryl Singletary, Marshall Tucker and Billy Joe Royal.
Bassist West Kyatt was a songwriter in Atlanta and Athens before he moved to North Carolina, where he joined forces with All My Rowdy Friends. Opening for major performers like Uncle Kracker, Eli Young Band and 38 Special, Kyatt played bass for both Justin West and Blake Kearney, garnering years of experience in a range of styles, performing them all with enthusiasm and passion.
The distinct country twang manifests with pedal steel guitar and harmonica player Ollin Landers, who hails from the Greenville and Spartanburg areas of South Carolina. A seasoned country and southern rock musician since the 1970s, Landers began dabbling with pedal steel guitar while in the military. He performed and recorded tracks for a plethora of bands, including The Silverwings Band, Steel Country, Reverb Deluxe, Hillbilly Nuts and Little Ramona.
With a setlist of two hours’ worth of Bocephus’ most popular songs, All My Rowdy friends channels the country music star at venues across the United States at theaters, casinos, festivals and events. All My Rowdy Friends headlined for The Outlaws, Craig Campbell, Aaron Tippin, Eric Beddingfield, LoCash and The Black Hawks as the sole Hank Williams Jr. tribute band in the nation, with its spontaneous show. While All My Rowdy friends played in Huntsville, Alabama, Gadsden is a first for the band.
“We played at an amphitheater in Morristown, Tennessee, and the crowd was really great,” said Sandi. “At the end of the show, Frank leaves the stage and goes to the motor home, but the crowd started going crazy – they wanted more! I ran off stage and brought him back [for an encore]. Some of them really thought they were at a Hank Jr. show! After the show, they had the most spectacular fireworks I’d ever seen in my life.”
“[That memory reinforced what I love about performing], the crowd and traveling. The band is like a family…I enjoy everything about it. The traveling, the camaraderie and of course, rehearsal and cutting up with everybody. [But] I’ve learned that things can change at the drop of a hat, and that you have to be ready and willing to change what you’re doing into something else if you need to, in order to appease the agents, venue or each other.”
Morrow and Holmes reiterated Sandi’s emphasis on the friendship forged among members, sharing the connection all participants share.
“You go through a lot of rehearsals and learn the music, then you get out there on stage and really bond,” said Holmes. “Being in a band is a lot of fun, especially when everyone gets along, because it’s a lot of hours of traveling. There’s a saying that the audiences are heavenly, but the traveling is hell. When you’re traveling with a good crowd and you know each other and give each other their space, it works out great.”
While the band determines the setlist and learns the songs beforehand, members Holmes, Morrow and Sandi noted that part of the band’s appeal manifests in its realism. As an all-live band with no backing tracks, the band proves an adaptable and enthusiastic entity, where members are free to express themselves creatively on stage and respond to the audience in a fun, enlivening manner.
“I think country music brings a lot of people home,” said Morrow. “It shares their own experiences. Hank Jr.’s music is a combination of all genres – country, early rock, southern rock and blues. In my opinion, he’s the early starter of what they call ‘new country’ now. I’ve had people come to our show who have never really listened to Hank Jr. before and didn’t know if they wanted to stay or not, because they didn’t really like country music. But by the time the show is over with, they loved it.”
The members shared what they hope the audience gained from experiencing the show.
“I want to put on as good a show as possible and make everyone happy,” said Holmes. “I hope they enjoy the music, have a good time and go home and tell their friends, ‘Wow, we just saw a great band.’”
“I hope audiences get as close as an experience as possible to a Hank Williams Jr. show,” said Morrow. “I’ll never be Hank Jr. myself – I’m not as talented as that man is – but I’ll put on as good a show as I possibly can.”