By Torchy Taboo
When I first began frequenting the Star Community Bar in L5P in the early ’90s, like so many locals, I couldn’t get enough of the amazing selection of country and rockabilly bands that were being booked there. The excitement was consistent and palpable—we were starved for “it.” Late weekend nights, we clambered for more—even demanded more. Before long it came to my attention that a notable battle-cry had developed. “Alright God-damn-it!” would holler a couple of kids from up front. They clearly had a feel for the real thing ’cause if the show was good they were there and raisin’ a ruckus. “More!!!” Young Cletis Reid knew what he wanted to hear and had no compunctions about making it known.
Now Cletis has his own band, Cletis and his City Cousins, and since they just released a new CD, CITY COUSINS MOVIN’ IN, and are playing this Fri June 15, at The Earl, ATLRetro thought it was a great time to make him Kool Kat of the Week. Make sure you get out because the 9 p.m.-starting show is a mere $10 and they’re sharing the stage with three other ATLRetro favorites, Three Bad Jacks, Hot Rod Walt and The Psycho-DeVilles and Whiskey Dick.
TORCHY TABOO: I know you grew up in M’retta…how’d you end up at the Star Bar yelling for encores from Redneck Underground greats?
CLETIS REID: In 1992, I saw The Blacktop Rockets play with a band called Donkey at The Roxy in Buckhead, and I basically hauled ass down this path of riches and fame. I had been listening to country music my whole life but never saw people only a little older than me play it before.
I remember The Hepburns with you and your brother Ryan—you were just kids. What was it like being a “child prodigy”?
The Hepburns is kind of a blur simply because it went from an idea on one of those crazy Stein Club Mondays to kaput within a year, yet we recorded an EP, had heavy airplay on Album 88, did Live at WREK, had an article in The Loaf and Stomp and Stammer, and played a sold-out Point opening for Kelly Hogan. It was like being hit by a truck since, yeah, it was my first “normal” band. I thought it would always go that fast. It went out with a keg on Morgan Road in Marietta.
So seeing bands like Backtop Rockets and The Vidalias put the country music of the 1960s and ’70s and earlier into a current and personal context for you. Was it easy to find like-minded people to play with before the Redneck Underground?
Always easy. It was easy when I started out because none of us knew what the hell we were trying to do anyway. I didn’t really develop that direction until Redneck Underground was already a term. I never identified myself with the Redneck Underground name, just kinda got identified with it through association. I never went through the official hazing ritual with the Witches of the Ozarks. By the time the RU came around, I was surrounded by like minded people all the time. Still am.
I know what Hank III thinks of current mainstream “country’” music. I know what I think of it. What do you think of it?
First of all, I would never call it country. When you say you love country music in my circles, people know what you mean. If I say that out in the real world, people think you mean something totally different and will ask you what you think of the new Taylor Swift record. “I haven’t heard the [___], sir.” But to answer your question I think it should be “mainstreamed” up Toby Keith‘s …..[the terminology gets musically "technical" here...we'll spare the reader.]
Who was your first rockabilly band, and don’t I recall you on stand-up bass?
The first “rockabilly” band I played with was Flathead Mike and the Mercurys, which was kind of a rockabilly turned up to 11. I was just starting out on upright bass. Definitely hard to keep up with those monkeys at that time. Soon after started playing upright with Caroline and the Ramblers which was a new experience. Already established, total professionals, and more traditional in their sound. I played with them for eight years and learned a lot. Caroline has a new CD out, by the way. I’m her agent. Starting now.
Hard to remember exact years, but around 2000, I started The Holy Smokes with my buddies Bill Quigley and Mark Griffiths, and a revolving door of drummers. I figured I was ready to front a band. We did a few originals and a number of covers of Sun Records-era rockabilly. That song was written for a Monday night songwriter thing at the Star Bar. I think we may have played it once with The Snakehandlers (another band I was in), but that’s about it. I didn’t have it written down and accidentally forgot it. I remember the relevant part. I guess I could always write some new crap around that.
Tell us about your current band, Cletis and his City Cousins?
After everybody moved away on me, after a couple of years I asked my buddy Johnny McGowan to help me out and it turned into Cletis and his City Cousins around 2002. It evolved into more of a ’60s or ’70s trucking vibe, which seemed like the natural order of things.
For the erudition of the general public, why truckin’ songs?
Truckers to me have always been the cool, loner guys. I would go on vacations with my grandparents as a young kid and we would roll into this truckstop diner around foggy sun-up, and I thought all these guys were living a real life Smokey and The Bandit or Tom T. Hall song, and in a way they were. Those old truck-driving songs have a way of painting a picture of that life that I could never do in sentences. Always felt I could relate to them in a sense. Plus, all my Trapper Keepers [Marietta-speak for school notebook] had some rigs with some sweet sleepers on them. Wanted to live in one. I got a CB for Christmas one year. My handle was “Honkey See, Honkey Do.” I guess it still is if I ever get another one. [if?!]
The Cousins frame the talents of Johnny McGowan, and the chemistry seems perfect.
Johnny and I were friends from his early days in the Blacktop Rockets when we raised a little hell at Sleazefest ’97. When I needed somebody to play with after the great Exodus of ’02, he was a no-brainer. Even then he had some of the craziest chops in town. We would set up for hours on end in his basement and record stuff until we were plain sick of each other, and eventually it became a natural working relationship. He and I actually plan on releasing some of those early basement recordings some day. He’s the best musical mind I know, and the only guy I know who can play a Jerry Reed-type run exactly the way we need it done. Turned out we wrote well together too. It hasn’t always been sunshine and teacups, but I’ve never had a second thought about calling him up. Throw in Blake and Hammer, and I can’t imagine a more perfect band for me.
First off, it’s very shiny. Secondly, it’s been in the works since the Vietnam era, and finally, $10 is a small price to pay for the most staggering achievement in the annals of human endeavor. CD is called CITY COUSINS MOVIN’ IN. [Buy it or they will. Ed's note: Watch out for an ATLRetro review coming soon.]
To close, I asked Cletis the ubiquitous question, “where’d the name ‘Cletis and the City Cousins’ come from?” But it was the top of the Ninth, and an answer nearly as dismissive as “Woman, get me a beer” told me my magic moment with the rising star was done. “I just came up with it off the top of my head as just something to call it and it ended up sticking,” he said. ” need to come up with a more exciting story for my next interview.”
Yes. Well, the truth is Cletis Reid sees himself as that guy all Southern people have in their family so the name is a straightforward description of sorts. That is, if they all had a notorious biting wit for remarks such as, “If there was any justice in this world, URBAN COWBOY would be thought of in the same way people think of CITIZEN KANE.”