Kool Kat of the Week: Julea Thomerson on ‘Diesel Smoke & Dangerous Curves,’ Her Fellas, the Dear Johns and Honky-Tonkin’ it Up at the Star Bar

Posted on: Mar 10th, 2014 By:

Photo by JoLynn Still

by Melanie Crew
Contributing Writer

Julea Thomerson, guitar totin’, classic country-western music lovin’ high-energy southern gal and her Dear Johns will be causin’ a ruckus with a night of boot stompin’ rockabilly and country-western revival at The Star Bar this Friday, March 14! It’ll be a hootenanny and a half with her big rig honky-tonk ramblin’ pals, Cletis & His City Cousins [June 2012; see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Cletis Reid, here] releasing a rockin’ new CD, also featuring The Blacktop Rocketsslingin’ some revved up rockabilly to boot!

Julea is no newbie to Atlanta’s ‘roots’ music underground.  She’s been delivering her catchy vintage vocals and guitar pickin’ with a handful of Atlanta’s favorites, from Danny ‘Mudcat’Dudeck to Bill Sheffield to Nathon Nelson.  She was also a member of the all-girl, traditional country band, The Bareknuckle Betties, from 2010-2012.  After the Betties disbanded, she brought together a group of rockin’ fellas and created her current line-up of, Julea & Her Dear Johns.  The ‘Dear Johns’ are Spike Fullerton of the Ghost Riders Car Club [Feb. 2011: see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Spike, here] on guitar, Chad Vaillancourt lightin’ a fire on the upright bass and Gabe Pline on drums.  They’ve been gettin’ around town and revvin’ up Atlanta old-fashioned country and rockabilly-style at venues and events such as The Star Bar, The Earl, the Rockabilly Luau [Aug. 2013; see ATLRetro’s feature on the Rockabilly Luau here], the East Atlanta Strut and the Little Five Point Halloween Festival.  With her unique twangy vocals and boot-stompin’ kick assery, the sky’s the limit for Julea!

ATLRetro caught up with Julea for a quick interview about her love of traditional old-fashioned retro music made by trailblazin’ ladies who didn’t give a damn; her fellas, the Dear Johns; and her new weekly radio show, Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves.

And while you’re takin’ a gander at our little Q&A with Julea, take a listen to Julea & Her Dear Johns rockin’ out at The Star Bar with their revved up tune, “Rocket Dog” in December 2013 here.

How did you find your fellas, the ‘Dear Johns’ and become a band?

We started playing together about two years ago. I was playing shows with a few different folks after my previous band broke up and this was the configuration that stuck. I’ve known Chad (upright bass) for years. He’s my best friend and he’s taught me a lot about music.  I met Spike (guitar) at shows around town and always really enjoyed talking country music with him. I met Gabe (drums) the same way, but I also enjoyed talking with him because he’s a school teacher like me.

How did you get involved in the Atlanta ‘roots’ music scene? Was it easy or did you have to ‘pay your dues’?

I got involved in the roots music scene when I started singing with Mudcat and Bill Sheffield at the Northside Tavern back in 2007. I suppose I “paid my dues” in a sense – I went to a lot of open mics, and I would go to shows and wait around until the bars were closing down and most of the patrons were gone, because it was at that point that some of the performers I would go see would let me get up on stage with them and sing a song or two.  Things happened pretty quickly when I started writing songs however.  I put a band together and recorded an album that I never released, and then there was The BareKnuckle Betties, an all female traditional country band I played with for a few years. I think folks who have gotten to know me see that I really love country western music, and that my passion for acquiring and sharing what musical knowledge I have is genuine. The roots music community in Atlanta is full of wonderful, good people who support each other, and many of them have been very encouraging to me.

If you could build a dream band to play with, who would you pick to be in it and why?

I’ve never thought about it all that much.  I’m pretty happy with the way things are these days. I suppose it wouldn’t be terrible to have Grady Martin in my band though, since he’s the greatest country western & rockabilly guitarist of all time. I don’t think I would mind playing music with him at all.  As far as folks who are alive today, I’d say Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan, and Deke Dickerson are doing a fine job carrying on the tradition of country western guitar greatness.

Can you tell our readers a little about your weekly radio show?

My weekly radio hour, “Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves,” will air on AM1690 on Wednesday evenings from 7-8 pm starting April 2.  I’m so excited to be contributing to this wonderful station.  My hour will probably have a hillbilly, classic country western and rockabilly focus, just because that’s what I love the most in my heart and what I have the most of in my record collection.  But I’m also planning to cover the genres of pre-war piedmont blues, ’40s and ’50s rhythm and blues, “popcorn” and northern soul, a smidge of garage and really just everything that is good and should be played on the radio.

I’ll be playing music from both male and female performers, but I do hope to focus a spotlight on many female artists who never got the spotlight they deserved. I’m also planning to interview some trailblazing women who were making great music back when folks were telling them there was “no place for women in country music.” I have a lot of records made by folks who were just as good as Loretta Lynn or Etta James but never got the recognition they deserved. My show will focus on those women and men.

Do you have any plans for an album with your ‘Dear Johns’?

Oh, yes.  I’m studio shopping at the moment. Looking for a good engineer with a good live room and access to a tape machine who’s not afraid to do everything live.  If you are that man or woman, please get in touch with me!

Did you start playing guitar and banjo as a little girl or learn later? Any story about how you got started?

I learned guitar when I was a teenager and I’m so glad I did. My mom really wanted me to try it, but I didn’t want to at first. I almost didn’t learn to play at all because I didn’t want to cut my long nails off.  I couldn’t imagine how different my life would be if I didn’t play guitar.  I’m so glad I didn’t let my stupid nails get in the way!

I learned banjo a few years ago when I bought one.  I’m not a “real banjo player,” but I enjoy messing around on it and I love how it’s changed the way I write music at many times.  It’s a wonderful instrument. I think everyone should have a banjo!

Who are some of your favorite vintage performers and influences?

SO many! Too many to name them all, but I’ll share a few.  I love Charline Arthur because she was so talented and she didn’t take any crap from anyone.  I love Ma Rainey because she used to start her performances inside a giant box done-up to look like a Victrola only to emerge from the box in the middle of the first song covered in gold necklaces and flashing her gold teeth.  I also love her because she could perform with a big ol’ band at minstrel shows and opera houses without a microphone.  I love Lottie Kimbrough because her voice sounds like butter and makes me teary-eyed.  I love Lorrie Collins because she is the greatest rockabilly singer of all time, and because she sang about what she wanted to no matter what kind of reputation it would give her.  I love Mimi Roman because she is a New York Jewish sharp-shooting cowgirl country western singer who toured with Ronnie Self and Goldie Hill, and also because she’s a very nice lady who has been kind enough to talk with me and has been very encouraging to me about my music. You’ll hear from all these gals and more on my radio program, “Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves.”

Any special plans for Friday’s show at The Star Bar?

I’ll be playing some new tunes with the fellas, and I’ve also worked up a fun duet with Dave Weil from The Blacktop Rockets.  Also, my pals Cletis Reid and Johnny McGowan have put together a new CD that they’ll be releasing that night. If you like truck-driving country, you’ll want to come on out and pick one up!

What’s next for Julea and Her Dear Johns?

Definitely hoping to get into the studio and record an album soon.  Hopefully we’ll keep playing cool shows and I’ll keep writing new songs.

We all know that the life of a musician can get hectic.  What do you do on a regular day when you’re just being Julea?

I teach first grade at an arts-integrated elementary school in the Atlanta area.  It can be a challenging job, but I love it so much.  I’ve taught second, third and fourth grade in the past as well.  If I’m not teaching, or playing music, or writing music, then you can probably find me at the record store.

Who are some of your favorite female local artists?

There are so many cool women in Atlanta playing really good music. Buffi Aguero (Tiger! Tiger! & The Subsonics) inspires me, as does Aileen Loy (Till Someone Loses An Eye) [March 2013; see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Aileen, here], Katy Graves and Jennifer Leavey (from Catfight!) [May 2012; see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Katy, here], Suzanne Gibboney (Tiger!Tiger!, LUST and Catfight!), Adron, Cameron Federal (Little Country Giants) Caroline Engel (Caroline & The Ramblers) [July 2012; see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Caroline, here], Lindsay Rakers, and so many more!  My friend Andy Deaver-Edmonstone (from The BareKnuckle Betties) has a great new band called the Burnt Mountain Benders that I can’t wait to hear. I’ve also gotten really into Kira Annalise‘s music here recently.  She writes amazing songs.

Can you tell us something you’d like folks to know about you that they don’t know already?

I very much prefer mono recording over stereo.  In fact, I detest the whole concept of stereo recording. I think it’s ruined many great songs.

All photographs are courtesy of Julea Thomerson and used with permission.

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Old Enough To Drink: Bubbapalooza Turns 21! Remembering Gregory Dean Smalley

Posted on: May 23rd, 2012 By:

By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor

(Note: all photos of Gregory Dean Smalley are courtesy of James Kelly)

In Atlanta’s Redneck Underground, Memorial Day weekend means one thing: BUBBAPALOOZA! For 21 years, the Star Bar has hosted a wild and wooly hootenanny of great Southern music and fun. This year’s event takes place on Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26, with 21 bands representing a vast array of rootsy musical styles (for a complete schedule, scroll down to the end of this article!).

Some of us have been there since the very first event, but over time things have changed; bands have come and gone and familiar old faces faded away, pulled by grown up jobs, family obligations or the need to preserve their livers. But like any great music scene, new folks step in to fill the void, and this year promises to be as good as it gets. It seems that no matter what crappy genre of music is being adored by the mainstream, traditional country, rockabilly, surf and roots rock continue to maintain a high profile in L5P. A mix of the old, the new and the unknown makes each band’s set a celebration of the diverse musical legacy established so many years ago by the late Gregory Dean Smalley.

A will o’ the wisp of a man, Smalley had a vision that has continued on, and is now entering its third decade of existence. Smalley was a journeyman musician, with temporary stints in just about every band he booked at Bubbapalooza. He was as charming as he was infuriating, able to carry on a thoughtful conversation with just about anyone on just about any subject, and a mind full of the dirtiest jokes you ever heard. While so many of the newcomers weren’t even of drinking age when Smalley died in 1996 from AIDS-related illness, each year the long-term attendees make an effort to remind everyone of his contributions to our music scene, and to keep his memory alive for old and new fans alike. But sadly, many people never got to meet him, listen to his witty and usually offensive tirades, or hear his amazing guitar playing.

During the last year of his life, Greg spent a lot of time at my house, sitting in an easy chair and watching Nascar, picking guitars, shooting the breeze, or napping for a hour or so. As the AIDS virus ravaged him, he had a medical port for injecting his prescribed drugs, and often dosed while in that chair. About six months after he died, I was walking through the living room when I noticed something under the chair that had not been there before. It was an empty syringe that had just fallen from the chair that day, one of Greg’s medications he had injected while in my home. The day it fell was September 3, Greg’s birthday. His way of saying “Hey, remember me?” As if I needed a reminder. He was unforgettable, and is still around in spirit, and every Memorial Day weekend, he smiles upon his family and friends as we celebrate his legacy.

The social media as we know it today never existed during Greg’s lifetime, and there is no telling what he would have thought of all the Twittering, Facebooking, blogging and what-not that goes on. ATLRetro tossed a request for a personal comment out into the web-o-net regarding our old pal Gregory Dean, and here’s a sample of the (printable) responses we got:

A natural-born entrepreneur, raconteur and spirited musician, Greg hustled and humped his way through life with unbridled exuberance, which carried anyone in the vicinity along for what often turned out to be a wildly memorable ride.Doug Deloach

Greg Smalley was one of the funniest, sweet, and bravest guys I ever knew, and he had a fantastic ear for music – playing it as well as putting together great shows! I miss him a lot.Katy Graves

Greg Smalley was a funny, wirey little dude that could play the shit out of the guitar!Annie Hamm

The first time I met Greg – in Columbia, SC – he tried to pick a fight with me, the ‘college-rock’ dude… a year or so later, he was an important part of the band.Walter Czachowski

Thoroughly Southern in manner and mind.Ian Shipp

Greg was quite strange (not a bad thing, I am also!), and he gave John Grant and me (Dos Hombres) a chance to play at Bubbapalooza, so how could I dislike the man!?Elliott Michaels

One of the most rewarding guitar repair clients I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Seeing Greg on stage tearing it up on his Les Paul Special made me feel like his NASCAR crew. Being in a band with him was just as rewarding. I’m sure he’s up in heaven telling other deceased rock star guitar players how to play their trademark licks.Bryan Lilje

Greg Smalley was one of the funniest guys I ever knew.Wher he played with The Chant for the first time, he knew all the guitar parts, including the little riffs in the background to sweeten things up. He put everything into what ever he was doing. I miss him so much. He made my life a better place to be.Jim Johnson

Funny, unaffected, kind human being!Sean Bourne

Greg wouldn’t just wave or nod from across the bar. He’d always come over for a chat. Still deeply missed and finding his way into many conversations today. And there was the whole guitar giant thing.Thom Heckel

One determined person who really didn’t care what anyone else thought.Faylynn Owen

Greg was completely fearless about being himself all the time, extremely good and incredibly awful, and if you could recognize and accept that, you could be his friend, and that was a very rewarding experience.Tim Lathrop

Played “breaking my heart while I’m drinking her beer” before it was finished on his couch on Franklin Rd. Long cigarettes and intelligent music.Philip Buchanan

Not a lot of pretense with Greg. I recall he labeled effects pedals “SHIT” and “MORE SHIT.”Al Shelton

He was only ever nice to me. Good to me especially on stage, which is 90% of my interaction with him. Generous, encouraging, and a fearless gamer. I learned a lot about not caring what people think: a difficult and priceless lesson for this Southern mama’s boy.Jon Byrd

No matter what Greg went into everything with a smile on his face, and a joke at the end of his tongue. If you were offended then wait for the next one.John Thomason

Greg Smalley was everything I love about the south. – Steve Pilon

Bubbapalooza #21 Line-up:

FRIDAY MAY 25
DOORS 7PM/$8

12am: THE BAREKNUCKLE BETTIES
11pm: BLACKTOP ROCKETS
10pm: GHOST RIDERS CAR CLUB
9pm: UNCLE DADDY & THE KISSIN COUSINS
8pm: SLIM CHANCE & THE CONVICTS

in the Little Vinyl Lounge:
10:30: SUICIDE DOORS
11:30: JUNIOR, DOLAN & CASH

SATURDAY MAY 26
DOORS 4PM/$10

12:30: THE MYSTERY MEN?
11:30: THE KENTUCKY BRIDGEBURNERS
10:45: AM GOLD
10:00: CLETIS & HIS CITY COUSINS
9:15: SONORAMIC COMMANDO
8:45: DUSTY BOOZE & THE BABY HATERS
7:45: THE MIDWAY CHARMERS
6:45: J.J. & THE HUSTLERS
5:45: THE SKYLARKS
4:45: CHICKENS & PIGS
4:15: THE SERENADERS

In the Little Vinyl Lounge:
10:45: ATOMIC BOOGIE
9:45: THE WHEEL KNOCKERS
7:00: ALICK GERARD & THEDIXIE LIMITED

To find out more about the history of Bubbapalooza, check out last year’s interview with Bryan Malone and Ted Weldon, Raising a big PBR toast as Star Bar’s Bubbapalooza turns 20.I try to keep the dose of Ativan, which I order at ativanshop.com the same as it was prescribed.

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