For 13 years, Cleveland's Cowslingers roamed the countryside, peddling a wonderfully bizarre mix of musical styles.
"We've always had an equal appreciation for country, rockabilly and punk rock, and there aren't a lot of people who listen to all three," says Greg Miller, the Cowslingers' singer-songwriter, drinking a beer at the Tremont Tap House on a recent chilly night. "To mash it all up at the same time, it was challenging sometimes to even describe it to people. But once they came out to see you, they'd be like, 'Oh yeah, I get this.'"
Plenty of people enjoyed the band's loose and boozy musical mash during the course of their illustrious underground career. Before breaking up in 2004, the Northeast Ohio band had barnstormed both America and Europe, playing their distinctive style of high-octane cowpunk. They were known as much for their frantically fun live sets as for their skewed approach toward root music (a mix of Link Wray, the Cramps, Johnny Cash and Jason & the Scorchers). Ravenous fans from all over the country grew up with the band in hotspots like Atlanta, San Francisco, Champaign, Ill., Charleston, W.V. and towns throughout Ohio. Those supporters have inspired the four-piece to get back together for one reunion show, the day before New Year's Eve, to plug in, kick the dust off some old songs and channel the electricity of Cowslingers past.
"We're going to get geared up and play forever," says Miller. "We'll probably play a gazillion songs, and we'll play until people are sick of hearing us. We're going to knock together five or six rehearsals — just to make sure everything's good. We don't want to be horrible. [We don't want people to say], 'OK, we came to see these guys. They suck. Now I remember.'"
A gig with the Cowslingers is always a trip down memory lane, since nearly every song is based on true-life incidents from the band's misadventures. Take, for instance, the gasoline-garage rocker "Must've Been the Whiskey" (from 1997's West Virginia Dog Track Boogie), a true story about Miller's buddy who got drunk and married a flight attendant in Vegas. Consider the road-rockabilly ballad "Work Privilege" (from 2004's Cowslinger Deluxe) about bassist Ken Miller getting a DUI driving the band van back from Pittsburgh. His brother Greg croons, "The judge blamed the alcohol, I blame the acid and the pot."
"I can tell you a story for every single one of these songs," says Miller. "We've always kind of been this flame for really fucked-up people to gravitate toward. I like to be around interesting, offbeat people. I like to hear their stories, and I take stuff that they tell me and I make songs out of them."
Seemingly powered on ethanol, angel dust and the spirit of country-rock, the band played up to 120 dates a year, producing nine full-length albums and 13 seven-inch records. When guitarist Bobby Latina parted ways with the band, the Miller brothers and drummer Leo P. Love reformed as the Whiskey Daredevils, drumming up a similar style of trucker punk that still blasts through concert halls in Cleveland, Europe and even Japan. And, although Miller and friends moved on without Latina, it was his wigged-out guitar playing that made the Cowslingers' signature sound. Latina joined the band when he was only 15 and played his first cross-country gig at Seattle's Crocodile Café when he was still in high school (the poster from that show is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Seattle exhibit).
The Cowslingers' unpredictable energy put Cleveland on the map for innovative roots music. One year, they would win best Cleveland country act, the next they would win best punk act. It's that diversity mixed with the band's electric stage act that's drawing fans from as far as Tennessee and San Francisco to relive Cowslingers power at this much-anticipated reunion show.