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).
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.
"They may start out doing a more or less traditional Celtic piece or bluegrass piece, and then they go off in some completely different direction without any difficulty," says Brundle. "I don't know of any other band that can do that. There are people who fake it, but the Waybacks do it genuinely."
2000's Devolver ranges from the hot bluegrassy picking of "Lickkus Interruptus" to a version of Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From the Apple," Ozarks bebop that you have to hear if you think mandolins and acoustic guitars can't swing. In between, there are traditional Celtic ballads, jazzy western outlaw sagas, and a song from Walt Disney's The Jungle Book.
The 11 tracks on the band's Burger After Church, released last year, are even more wide-ranging. The album starts with a Mediterranean jig, "Turkish Stalemate." According to Brundle and Coyle, the song had been variously known in the past as "Turkish in the Straw," "Steambath," and "Turkish Cellmate." In 4 1/2 minutes, the tune's interlocking strings tread so much terrain -- rapid bluegrassy peaks, mournful exotic chasms, bumpy Django-ish plateaus -- that it's easy to see why it took a while for the band to pin a name on it. "Brundlefly," a tribute to the executive producer, as well as to Seth Brundle, Jeff Goldblum's character in The Fly, is just as rangy, but in the framework of funk. And in the hands of the Waybacks, Floyd Cramer's moonlit '50s piano instrumental "Last Date" starts as a breezy stroll led by Jacques' mandolin, then opens into sweet, jazzy conversation.
Even more beautiful than the tales of high school courtship in "Last Date" is the ancient chivalry of "The Return," written by journeyman songwriter Archie Fisher and laden with Coyle's stately vocals. The Celtic ballad is the sequel to "The Witch of the Westmoreland," an infectious gem written by Fisher in the late '60s and sung by the late Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers.
That "The Return" should premiere on the second album of a band that formed 16 years after Rogers' death demonstrates how quickly the Waybacks have spread their wings. Fisher was so impressed by the Waybacks' performance of "The Witch of the Westmoreland" at a festival in Nova Scotia that he entrusted the band to record the debut of its sequel. "Archie grabbed us as we came offstage," says Coyle. "He said, 'Listen, would you consider recording "The Return"? I have it right here.' So I said, 'Are you kidding?'"
A typical day, it seems, for the Waybacks: right band, right place, right time. "We're sorta catching up with ourselves," says Coyle. "It's just flabbergasting. The acceleration is really kinda heady."