Burt and the Bandits, 8 p.m. Sat. July 30; $12 advance; $15 at the door; Earl Smith Strand Theatre, 117 North Park Square, Marietta.
When ATLRetro launched in January, we knew the first Kool Kat of the Month had to be Jon Waterhouse. In a city fortunate to have several strong contenders for its most Retro Renaissance Man (Or Woman), Waterhouse is an undisputed 20th Century Pop Culture King. And that’s not just because he hosts a radio show called THE POP CULTURE KING SHOW on AM 1690, though that show, along with a regular freelance gig with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, allows him to interview many 20th century icons.
No, what’s so cool about Jon is the quantity and diversity of Retro culture that he’s tapped into. He’s done promo work for Van Halen and fronted Van Heineken, a Van Halen tribute band. He hosts all of Blast-Off Burlesque’s shows, transforming seemingly effortlessly into a succession of creative characters from a sci-fi nerd to Rip Taylor. For four years and over 100 Silver Scream Spookshows at the Plaza Theatre, he played Retch, Professor Morte’s lovable sidekick. He’s collaborating on a book related to the 1939 classic movie THE WIZARD OF OZ.
And just when you wonder what he could possibly do next, Jon’s latest adventure is Burt and the Bandits, which pays homage to the 1977 Burt Reynolds hit SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. They’re playing the awesome art-deco Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta on Sat. July 30, and after getting the lowdown from Jon, we can’t think of a better reason to dust off the old Trans Am, get loaded up and truckin’, never mind them brakes, put that hammer down and give it hell all the way to OTP…
ATLRETRO: How did you get the idea of a SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT tribute band?
JON WATERHOUSE: Well, as a child of the ’70s, I remember the days when Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star going. There really hasn’t been another film celebrity like him since. He kind of cornered the market with a perfect mix of machismo and silliness. I have a special spot in my heart for his films, especially his earlier exploitation flicks like WHITE LIGHTNING and its sequel GATOR. Of course the original SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT is at the top of the heap. Anyway, many of his films featured great, fun music. You’ve got the Jerry Reed tunes from SMOKEY, and even the Ray Stevens title track from CANNONBALL RUN.
So about six or seven years ago I had the idea of a band that would play songs from Burt Reynolds movies dressed as the SMOKEY characters. And the set would be supplemented with what I call “classic country comfort food” from the same era, back when country was at its coolest. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton. It would be a tongue-in-cheek, comedic presentation, while still showing respect for the music. Heck, they did it with HEE HAW. Even Jerry Reed, who was a Chet Atkins disciple and one of the greatest finger pickers of his day, laced his music with humor. So that was the basic idea.
The band has a great line-up of seasoned musicians and even the fabulous Barb Hays of Blast-Off Burlesque. Was recruiting them as easy as getting to Texarkana and back in 28 hours?
Easier. My good friend Tim Price, who wrote the music and co-produced the Silver Scream Spookshow CD, is a big fan of classic pop culture, Godzilla and stuff like that. He immediately gravitated toward the idea. Tim is a real guitar whiz and a pro. He can pull off all that crazy finger-style stuff. Tim had been playing for years with my brother-in-law, Benny Boynton, in Banks & Shane. Benny is an amazing keyboard player, a real unsung hero of the local music scene. He’s shared the stage with everyone from Travis Tritt and Toby Keith to Percy Sledge and Chubby Checker. Benny was up for the idea. He plays keyboard and keyboard bass at the same time, which is no small feat.
The next person we called was Doug Williams, one of Benny’s longtime friends and collaborators. Not only is Doug a killer drummer, but he’s absolutely hilarious. He’s a professional voiceover artist and has done tons of stuff for Cartoon Network. In fact, Doug will be playing Santa in the upcoming ELF ON THE SHELF Christmas special. One of my fondest memories as a kid is when Doug would call the house while I was watching the annual airing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. He would do a spot-on Cowardly Lion impersonation and blow my kiddie mind. So I knew Doug would be a great asset.
At that point we had the core band, but I knew we needed a feminine touch in the group. I called on Barb Hays, who is always a pleasure to work with. I knew she could pull off all of the female lead vocals. And she has fantastic stage presence and is a very, very funny lady. She can somehow fuse sauciness with a touch of Phyllis Diller. So I play The Bandit, Tim is The Snowman, Barb is Frog, Doug is Sheriff Buford T. Justice and Benny is Buford’s son, Junior. We then enlisted Amy Dumas, who’s known for fronting the Luchagors, to add some background vocals. Some of the members of Blast-Off Burlesque agreed to put on their Daisy Dukes and kick up their heels. Soon the basic idea of a wacky tribute band turned into one heck of a party.
When did you first see SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and why do you think this ‘70s car chase comedy has such staying power 30+ years after it was made?
I saw it just after it was first released. My parents weren’t sure if I should see it or not. I was just 7 at the time. But I bugged them so much that my dad finally took me to the $1 theater to see it. I was floored. It defined a genre and an era. It came out the same year as STAR WARS. Although it didn’t cause the same kind of explosion, it certainly made an impact of its own. People were going out and buying black Trans Ams, chatting on CBs and singing “East Bound and Down.”
It still holds up today for many reasons. The car stunts are fantastic and organic without any CG. Hal Needham, the director, was a big-time stuntman himself, so he definitely knew what he was doing. He also allowed Jackie Gleason, who plays Sheriff Buford T. Justice, to ad lib his butt off. His lines in the movie are absolutely unforgettable. Burt Reynolds as the Bandit is the epitome of concrete cowboy cool. He and Sally Field are probably one of the cutest on-screen couples of all time. The chemistry is undeniable and probably why they ended up romancing off-screen, too. Jerry Reed is not only a fantastic country-fried sidekick to the Bandit, but he provides some awesome songs in the movie. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT has all of these elements and more. It’s when movie magic comes together to make something that resonates through time. Even my kids love it. That says something.
Are your songs all covers or do you play some originals, too?
At this point it’s all covers. The idea was to perform songs that evoke the SMOKEY era and bring some spark of nostalgia. Some of these songs you just never hear live. When have you ever heard a band play “Convoy”? I can’t say I’ve ever heard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” at a public spectacle outside of a sporting event or the Stone Mountain Lasershow Spectacular. So that’s the ticket. And people really dig it. We headlined the East Atlanta Beer Fest back in May and the crowd instantly got it. We played Jerry Reed’s funky swamp tune “Amos Moses,” and I was shocked when people started screaming and dancing. So the band’s blend of pop culture nods and classic country will hopefully strike a chord. We do, however, want to write some originals down the road. I expect these will be country novelty songs relating to the SMOKEY universe and ’70s trucker culture.
I can’t recall whether you grew up in Atlanta, but did you ever go to Burt’s Place in the old Omni (now CNN Center) and do you have any special memories of it? It was a big deal here in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s; at least the ladies room had the most famous graffiti in the city. Of course, I never went to the gents.
I did grow up in Atlanta and remember seeing Burt’s Place at was then called the Omni International. I remember his movie posters lining the entrance. And I always loved the caricature of Burt that was featured in the logo. My wife actually found a menu from Burt’s Place on eBay, as well as an ashtray and matchbook. I treasure them all and keep them in my home tiki bar.
Are you excited about playing in a 1935 art deco theatre like the Earl Smith Strand and do you have any special plans for the show?
The Earl Smith Strand Theatre is a beautiful place, and I can’t wait to play there. They really do some fantastic events there, from retro movies to plays and musicals courtesy of the Atlanta Lyric Theatre. I’m so happy it’s become the thriving epicenter of Marietta Square. Keeping a classic theatre alive is really essential to our culture, and these guys are doing a fantastic job.
As far as special plans go, we have some comedy moments up our sleeve, as well as a couple of representatives from Blast-Off Burlesque. Tim actually got help from one of the electricians from the original Woodstock concert to build a special stage prop. I’m dead serious. This guy ran wires at Woodstock when he was a teenager and was rubbing elbows with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. His name is Dr. Lonny Horowitz, a local bariatric specialist. He and Tim built and wired this big frame out of PVC pipe. It sits behind Doug’s drums and has a police light on the top of each corner. It brings some literal flash to the proceedings.
No band sounds more perfect for Drive Invasion (Starlight Drive-in, Sun. Sept. 4). Can you give readers a sneak peek ahead to that gig and what’s next for BURT AND THE BANDITS?
We recently got word we’re on the bill, and we’re all thrilled to be a part of Drive Invasion. There’s nothing like it. If you’re a fan of film and pop culture, you have to experience it. What makes it really cool is the fact they’re showing SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT this year. Unfortunately we can’t stick around for the movie. After our set we’ll be jetting over to Smith’s Olde Bar for a big college football kickoff party appropriately sponsored by Coors.
You’re always knee deep in interesting pastimes from your fantastic POP CULTURE KING show on AM1690 to Van Heineken, the promo stuff you do for the actual Van Halen to emceeing for Blast-Off Burlesque, writing for the AJC to wrestling management. Anything else in particular you’d like to share with ATLRetro readers about what Jon Waterhouse is up to right now?
I’m still hosting THE POP CULTURE KING SHOW on AM 1690. It’s actually the show’s third anniversary. It airs 8 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. Saturdays. This week I have exclusive interviews with Dolly Parton and wrestling legend Terry Funk. So I’m psyched about that. I’ve been writing for the AJC for about nine years, and I’m continuing to do that. I’m currently working on a children’s book about Karl Slover, one of the Munchkins from THE WIZARD OF OZ. That’s coming along, and I hope to be huntingdown an agent soon. I’m getting ready to host Blast-Off Burlesque’s WORLD TOUR show in September, so that should be fun. Looking forward to doing more work for Van Halen. Throw in this Burt & The Bandits stuff, and things are stacking up pretty good.
Finally, Trans Am or semi? Have you driven either/both, and which do you personally find more fun for dodging Smokey the Bear?
I have never driven either, although I’m threatening my wife that I’ll own a Bandit Trans Am one day. As far as speed goes, the T.A. has it hands down. Yet the big rig wins when it comes to power and mowing down a roadblock. I actually know a SMOKEY super fan here in Atlanta who owns both. His semi is a reproduction of the Snowman’s truck from the movie, complete with the mural on the side. Now that dude is serious.