Folk Explosion

The Waybacks strike a chord with fans of old-timey music

Are you one of those people who charge around town with a "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs" sticker on the back of their car? Good for you. Instead of slapping on "Pave the Planet" or "No Fat Chicks," you've opted for a printed slogan that hits a worthy target: all those stragglers who, rather than toil on their week's quota of widgets, rudely do what they love and get paid for it.

Sitting backstage at the Riverhawk Music Festival in Arcadia, Fla., Waybacks rhythm guitarist Stevie Coyle is unapologetic. "A year and a half ago, we all pink-slipped ourselves, and it's pretty much full time," he says. How can this man so casually thumb his nose at those of us who work for a living? You might, too: The San Francisco quintet, which primarily plays instrumentals, is the closest thing the folk and roots music scene has had to an overnight sensation since, well, maybe never.

The whole sordid affair started innocently enough. Like good "real" musicians, guitarist Stevie Coyle and fiddler/ mandolinist Wayne "Chojo" Jacques were separately plugging away, plying, plucking, and picking in pubs and coffeehouses around the Bay Area. Coyle performed with his Celtic group, the Frontmen, and Jacques, a veteran who's played with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Michael Hedges, was accompanying an outfit called Vicar's Daughter (featuring an actual vicar's daughter).

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Enter Dick Brundle, curator of the city's "Fiddling Cricket" folk-concert series. Coyle contacted Brundle about getting the Frontmen into the series, but Brundle, seeing dollar signs even then, had other designs. "OK, you can come," he said, "as long as you have Chojo with you."

"From what I knew of Chojo, he was really outstanding, and he made others play better when they were with him," Brundle now recalls. "Chojo can just play anything on fiddle or mandolin. He's so good, in particular, with improvisation. He just leads people around him."

Of course, no commercial equation is complete without sex. Younger than Jacques and Coyle by more than a decade, 29-year-old lead guitarist James Nash was soon enlisted, and he brought the goods. "James is known as the cheesecake of the band, or the tit of the band, whichever you want," says Brundle.

So that was it: the birth of the Waybacks. Coyle, Jacques, and Nash were joined by the rhythm section of bassist Chris Kee and drummer Peter Tucker, and the sparks started to fly. Coyle's background as a stand-up comedian and circus high-wire act added zany showmanship to a loose blend of Celtic, bluegrass, jazz, and rock that recalled NRBQ in its synthesis of virtuosity and fun. But the sparks weren't flying only onstage.

"I could see from people who came to the shows that they were going to be very popular," says Brundle. "It was a range from teenagers to people who were 90 years old."

The Waybacks could have kept their integrity and hung on to those character-bolstering day jobs, but then everything unraveled. "After seeing them play a couple of times, I said, 'When are you going to make a CD? You have to make it,'" recalls Brundle. "And they said, 'Well, we're looking for a white knight, someone who would pay for it,' and I put up my hand and said, 'Me! I'll do it!'

"It wasn't entirely altruistic," he admits. "I was pretty certain that that money would come right back very quickly, and it did."

Brundle expanded "Fiddling Cricket" into a record label, expressly for the Waybacks. A Web site went up, and promotional CDs went out. As observed by P.T. Barnum, "Advertising is like learning: A little is a dangerous thing." Before you could say Del McCoury, the Waybacks went from regional coffeehouses -- a venue that similar bands escape only after years of touring in an Econoline with leaky gaskets and mildewed upholstery -- to the big-time folk festival circuit.

The band has played for 80,000 people at Merlefest in North Carolina and for 65,000 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The Waybacks have shared stages with such acoustic giants as Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss, Jorma Kaukonen, and Mike Marshall and Daryl Anger from the original David Grisman Quintet. They've even gotten those company endorsements you see in guitar mags. The Waybacks went from anonymity to prestige so quickly that Kee and Tucker had to quit because of all the activity; they were replaced by drummer Chuck Hamilton and bassist Joe Kyle Jr.

"It's just so easy," Coyle sums up, sounding giddy. "Making decisions is really a matter of making room for another great opportunity that's fallen into our laps."

So what is it that has caused all this Waybackmania? The answer might lie in an unforgettable description of good, old-timey Americana coined by Woody Allen, as the subject of the documentary Wild Man Blues: He likens his beloved '30s Dixieland jazz to "taking a bath in honey." A lot of expert acoustic musicians go for the kind of sticky vibrancy that Allen is talking about, but they ruin it with cold technique, ending up with soulless antique reproductions that look right until you peel back the oak veneer and find the particleboard. Not the Waybacks. They have the technical skill to knock out any Steve Vai fan, but they have spirit and humor in their brilliantly loose jams. Just as important, the way they wittily combine and alternate styles is far from traditional.

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