Since he started performing with his backing band The Fly-Rite Boys some 25 years ago, singer-guitarist Big Sandy has continually attracted new young fans and introduced them to Western swing and rockabilly. Later this summer, Sandy, who's currently in the midst of a 25th anniversary tour, will release an album of old tunes that he's rearranged into acoustic instrumentals. His music, which recalls the type of music that was popular decades ago, has an easy-going vibe to it that appeals to fans of traditional country and rockabilly alike. Sandy recently phoned in from a Troy, New York tour stop to talk about his anniversary tour.
What do you remember of seeing Ray Charles perform when you were a kid?
The thing that stands out in my mind is that my family lived walking distance from that concert. It was an outdoor event at the community center. We walked down to the show and my mother had gone before us to put down a folding chair. We went around the back of the building and Ray Charles was out back yelling at a couple of the Raelettes. I was like, "Wow. That's Ray Charles and he's mad." Recently, I was trying to chase down what year that was. It was in the '70s. The show itself was great. I was lucky my parents used to take me to things like that. Things were a little looser then. You could take your kids into bars and clubs. I got to see a lot of local artists around town. Another one that sticks out was Richard Berry who was a big on the doo-wop scene in Los Angeles.
Were you known as Little Sandy back then?
No. Robert Williams is my real name. I took on the Sandy name when the band formed in 1988. There were a couple of other Robert Williams. I always wanted a stage name. I had an old jacket with a name patch on it that read "Sandy," and that became big Sandy.
Where was your first gig?
The first gig I ever played was with a band that started a few years before this one started. It was the day after Christmas in 1984. It was my first time on stage and I was intoxicated by the feeling I got. I was nervous and excited and it was a feeling that I hadn't felt before.
How did the Fly-Rite Boys come together?
We were always in different local bands playing roots-related rockabilly music. The bands we were in were not as traditional as we wanted to be. We were all in different bands and we wanted to do something that sounds a little closer to the old records we digged. We were all record collectors. That became Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Trio.
How many Fly-Rite boys have there been?
There's been a few over the years. We're all still friends. We still do shows where I get the old members to play with us. The touring Fly-Rite Boys are a little different. Our guitar player has been with us for 20 years and we're celebrating that anniversary. I remember when he was the new guy in the band.
You play Western swing and roots rock but you often play punk clubs. What's the rowdiest audience you have ever encountered?
I think when we played with Social Distortion. I've been friends with [Social Distortion singer] Mike Ness for a long time but I knew him more as a record collector. We had a chance to open for his band and we played a golf course in Huntington Beach and we played a recreation center there. We did our set and got a nice response but when they came on, there was not a table or chair left. Everything was in splinters. It was just mayhem. When we first started, we played some down and out honky tonk places but we never had any trouble.
Do you remember when you first played Cleveland?
I guess it was back at the original Grog Shop. I miss that. That grimy, dirty place had some character to it. I think we had been in town before that but that was our home for a while. Then, we moved on to other places before gravitating to the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern. I can't remember all the places.
What's one of your best memories of playing a show here?
I think the last time we were through, we had a show that was a blast. My band opened and then I sang with Los Straitjackets. I had a chance to show two different sides of whatever it is that I do. I played the honky tonk with my band and then cut loose with them, doing straight ahead rock 'n' roll.
Did you wear a mask?
No. When I first started doing shows with them as a guest artist, we debated that. In the early shows, I did wear a different type of mask.
What keeps people coming back to Western swing?
I'm not sure. There is always a new group of kids coming in who are discovering this older music. I'm thankful for that. I'm not sure why it keeps happening. It keeps renewing itself. I know for us as a band, we've gone through different phases but we have fun on stage and that keeps people seeing us. It's not like you're watching older music. It's now and exciting. It rocks. It's not an old timey thing.
What has your set list been like?
It follows along the lines of the new album. We want to touch on all the different phases of the band. We want to go over everything we've done musically over the last 25 years. I don't think we'll have a cake.
But you have one in the promo photo. Where's it from?
It's from supermarket. It's funny. There were a couple of photo shoots that fell through. That cake had been around for a few weeks and was pretty sad by the time we got those photos taken. That's why we put that lei around the outside of the cake. It was to cover up the messed up parts.
Has your look changed?
The music has gone through different phases. I think it changes from tour to tour and from night to night. If you look in our van, there's a western section and late '50s section.
You could do a retrospective of the different outfits.
I don't know if I can get into them any more.
Do you anticipate you'll play music for another 25 years?
Oh, definitely, as long as I'm walking and breathing. I truly love it. I feel blessed. I make somewhat of a living of something I really has a passion for. I never dreamt it would be something I would do for a living.