By Noe Gutierrez
The seed was planted in 2003 when a group of friends sat around playing songs at parties and BBQs. It grew from backyards, to barrooms, to theaters, to Stagecoach Festival 2009. After their momentous Stagecoach performance, Sacred Cowboys took a several year hiatus. The combination of individual careers and schedules proved too daunting to overcome at the time, so the ‘boys were put out to pasture. Their friendships never ended though. In 2018, that same core group got together, invited some new friends along, and realized there was still a lot of music left in them. Sacred Cowboys will ride again on Thursday, February 28th at Pappy and Harriet’s performing with Pearl and The Canyon Revelry Band and Starlight Cleaning Co. Tickets are $10. Doors open at 7 p.m. and show starts at 8 p.m. This is an ALL AGES event. You can purchase tickets at pappyandharriets.com.
Sacred Cowboys are W. Earl Brown (vocals, guitar), Peter Spirer (lead guitar, mandolin), Ralph Stevens (keyboards, banjo), Jeff Robertson (lead guitar, harmony vocals), Mike Johnstone (pedal steel guitar, mandolin), Alan Strommer (drums, harmony vocals) and Bruce Duff (bass).
Coachella Valley Weekly saddled up with actor, writer, producer, and musician W. Earl Brown, perhaps best known for his role as enforcer Dan Dority on the Emmy Award winning HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). With Deadwood the feature film slated to be released later this year, Sacred Cowboys could not have chosen a better time to rededicate themselves.
CVW: Tell us a little about your family and what you’re up to currently.
Brown: “My wife and I have one daughter attending the University of Oregon, she’s 20. My wife and I are from the same small town in Kentucky. We met in high school and stuck together through all of this. My day job is movie television stuff. We completed an HBO film for Deadwood that we finished in December ’18 and then I have a role on this show on Hulu. We go back into production at the end of May ‘19. We did a pilot for them right before I did the Deadwood film and I have a film on Netflix that will come out called The Highwaymen starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson that I have a significant supporting role in. That comes out the end of March ’19.”
CVW: Sacred Cowboys has a multitude of sounds, Country, Bluegrass, Gospel and Blues. Should we just agree that it’s only rock and roll? I love your sound and that Led Zeppelin tinge is apparent. How did it begin?
Brown: “Sacred Cowboys all started with Peter and I. We worked on a film together and we started to play guitar together and I realized I knew his rock band The Toyz from the 80’s out of Miami, his band was on MTV. He didn’t listen to country music at all and our wives became friends and we took them to see the Down From the Mountain tour which was inspired by Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? We had already seen it when it first came through and we caught it again on the second leg and he had never listened to Bluegrass music and he was mesmerized by the level of musicianship. He had never paid attention to it. So that was the birth of the band. We both have a love for hard rock. That’s what we grew up on and that’s what he played for the longest time so it really started with that.”
CVW: Once it was determined that Sacred Cowboys would be a band, what do you remember about that time?
Brown: “Right before Deadwood the series went into production, I was turning 40 and we rented the Cat Club for my birthday party and I hired a band. Peter said ‘I’ve got a buddy who’s a real good rock drummer, do you have a bass player? Let’s do a 45 minute set before the band you hired.’ That was kinda the birth of it. It was supposed to be a one-off thing but we really enjoyed doing it and got a lot of positive feedback. At that point we were doing cover band stuff. We had written one song as a group but otherwise it was covers.”
“After the Deadwood season two, we had the wrap party at the House of Blues and the producer of Deadwood, John Hawkes, who was in Deadwood also, was a musician who fell into acting. He asked if we wanted to play. Mike Johnstone was a featured extra on the show and I knew he was a pedal steel player. I knew he was an extraordinary musician but I didn’t know how damn good he was until we all started playing together. I invited him and Ralph Stephens was my former neighbor and we remained friends, he used to play with Jackie DeShannon many years ago. That’s how the band became this 7-piece band. I love The Allman Brothers Band and I wanted to do all these guitar harmony parts. Jeff on bass and I can play guitar but I’m not a great guitarist. We brought in another bass player, added a third guitar and that was the band. After that gig Peter said I’ve been in bands with four pieces but this is like being in a damn orchestra. It was so powerful. We started booking gigs and we got a monthly at Knitting Factory in Hollywood. We booked a gig in the main room and filled it up. A lot of those people who showed up worked on Deadwood. That standing gig lasted almost a year and a half.”
CVW: What do you remember about what led up to your Stagecoach ’09 set and the performance itself?
Brown: “One thing led to another and we found ourselves invited to play Stagecoach 2009. That went really well. We were on the Palomino Stage on Saturday afternoon. I went to the all of the Stagecoach festivals. I saw the very first performance of the very first day at the first Stagecoach. Going to all of them and then being on the stage at one of them was a rush. We played a big show once before in Deadwood to do their Wild Bill Days, which is a free concert with 25,000 people in attendance, but Stagecoach is Stagecoach. I remember the audience coming in droves as they heard the acapella based on a Jimmie Rodgers tune, Blue Yodel. I had seen so many heroes play that very stage we were on. I think George Jones played that stage the next night. Just thinking that we are on the same stage that George Jones is going to be perform on was awesome! It’s hard to put into words. On the periphery stage, they book a lot of great people. That’s where I spend my time going back and forth between Palomino and a variety of other stages. We played a few Goldenvoice shows. They hired us to open for Gretchen Wilson. Stagecoach was the pinnacle of it. Suddenly we were contacted about availability for other things but I couldn’t commit. I missed it. After a few years of not having that outlet, I missed it like crazy. And I missed all the guys.”
CVW: You have a good number of members in Sacred Cowboys. What’s it like on stage when all cylinders are firing?
Brown: “We have a new rhythm section. Tony our bass player had moved. There was a different drummer because the drummer we normally drum with was playing for Alan Parsons Project. We played in a room and we felt it. Hopefully we’ll get back to the place we were when we dropped off, ten years ago almost. As a musician, a pure player, I’m the weakest link in the whole band. A couple of those guys are extraordinary musicians that understand music on a different level than I do. Live is my milieu. Connecting with an audience, connecting with the band. I still get a thrill whenever the muse whispers in my ear, with what I do in TV and movies; everything kind of comes from the same place anyway. The need for expression and the desire to connect other spirits through some creative expression, it comes from the same place.”
CVW: Where do you find inspiration in television, films and music?
Brown: “I was a writer on Deadwood. I find whether it be a story or a melody, I start dreaming about it. Unless I get it down and out of my head that’s when I know I’ve got to follow this, if it’s haunting my subconscious. There’s been some stuff that I didn’t immediately latch on to it but that can come from any form, writing for a short story or a script or a song. The people that I admire the most, people like Kris Kristofferson. I got to know Kris well and we became friends through movies, we did a couple of films together. We hung out every night passing the guitar back and forth and telling stories. He’s one of my heroes. To listen to the stories behind the songs was incredible. It’s what I aspire to. Guys like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. Jason spent three days on Deadwood playing in the background. I listen to Jason’s songs and he just blows me away. That’s what I’m aiming at but I ain’t quite there yet. Look at someone like Terry Allen, a lot of people don’t’ know him or his songs but he is a sculptor and visual artist and has written several great country songs. Kris and I had that exact conversation. Teri said it all comes from the same place man! Look at Shel Silverstein. He was a cartoonist for Playboy and he wrote children’s books. He wrote adult literature and he wrote all those songs. The act of creation gives me a thrill.”
CVW: You’re performing at Pappy and Harriet’s with Pearl and The Canyon Revelry Band. How do you know Pearl Aday and how familiar are you with Pappy and Harriet’s?
Brown: “With Pappy and Harriet’s, I’ve always known the place and Johnstone, our steel player, has played that place dozens of times over the years with a variety of bands. For most of the band, it will be our first time being there. We play a lot with Pearl Aday and she’s the one who brought it up. I’ve known Pearl, her dad is Meatloaf, and I played Meatloaf in the film that VH1 made about him 20 years ago. It’s a small world, the guy who played Jim Steinman in the movie is her lead guitar player in PEARL, funny how everything’s come full circle. She’s an extraordinary singer. When she had her son, Revel is six now I think, music took a backburner to being a mom, her husband Scott Ian is a successful rock star in the heavy metal band Anthrax so she’s back making music and she fired up just about the time Sacred Cowboys got back together. It’s always a pleasure to be on a bill with them.”
CVW: Where do Sacred Cowboys go from here? More live shows?
Brown: “We just picked up a monthly gig at Molly Malone’s in Los Angeles. It starts at the end of March. It will be the last Saturday of every March. We’re still picking up gigs as they pop up that are within driving distance. We’re going to put our eggs in the residency basket like we did with the Knitting Factory. We played Molly Malone’s in December with PEARL.”
CVW: Is new music on the horizon?
Brown: “We’re doing an EP right now because the movie is coming out. We had made a record and did it all our own. We mixed it in Nashville at Blackbird Studio. We got a deal with that studio. We never had distribution on it. We’re going to work with a radio promoter and we’re gonna do an EP of songs that are really all involved out of Deadwood, South Dakota. So they lean more towards the country tunes but they’re mostly story songs. So we’re going to put all of those together, a couple of them we’ve already recorded, but we’re doing different versions of them so we’re putting those together in a little six song EP and then try and go the formal route through Americana Radio and see if we get any kind of traction. Everybody in the band writes songs. Ralph and I have written several things together. We’re gonna start cutting some demos now that we’ve got the live stuff going. Then we’ll decide what we’re going to do next after this EP. It’s all tracked, we’re in the middle of mixing it right now.”
CVW: Is there any consideration of transitioning to retired life whatever that looks like for you?
Brown: “If the guys stay together and we continue to get joy out of it, absolutely not. As far as my day job. I’m 55 and I’m still in touch with my high school buddies. We get together often. Mickey is a schoolteacher in Tennessee. He’s at a point where he can take his retirement. He asked me if I’ve given thought about what I’m going to do when I retire. I said, retire? I do the same shit I did when I was five years old! I play ‘cowboy’ and I get paid for it! So what am I gonna retire from? I don’t want to. As long as the joy and the muse is there. I still do those things I did as a kid. I’m just one of the blessed few to find a way to make money out of it.”