Return of the Prodigal

These are Johnny Cash's Bastard Sons, in whom he is well pleased.

Country greats Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson are two - of the Bastard Sons' biggest supporters.
Country greats Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson are two of the Bastard Sons' biggest supporters.

Mark Stuart's laundry is done. He knows, because some guy just came outside and told him to get his socks the hell out of the dryer.

"It's all about the glamour," Stuart says wryly. "The rock-and-roll lifestyle."

Scratch a rock-and-roller with clean skivvies and find Mark Stuart, lead scoundrel in the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. The Bastard Sons, a California-bred quartet with a decided preference for outlaw country music, have spent the last handful of years on the road, earning their pedigree. But with the votes nearly counted, it looks like a clear victory for the Sons, who have built a loyal following that includes Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and (of course) the Big Man himself.

What we have here, you see, is the purest kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. (Or, as Stuart says, "You know that Field of Dreams thing? 'If you build it, they will come?' It was like that, only our experience was more like 'If you build it and then you beg, they will come.'") The Sons went from being one of Music Connection magazine's "Top 100 Unsigned Bands" in 1999 to hanging out at Cash Cabin in 2001, adding two tracks to Walk Alone, their first full-length release -- two tracks that, incidentally, were produced by John Carter Cash himself.

Walk Alone was initially released by Ultimatum Records in 2000, garnering quick if sometimes tempered praise for its outlaw revivalism. This was the country of Waylon Jennings and Joe Ely, and if it didn't map out a lot of new territory (as some fault-finders suggested), there wasn't much to suggest that the Sons intended to -- at least on their first release. The songs on Walk Alone and its 2002 follow-up, Distance Between, were all about trucks and roadhouses and coffee-Benzedrine cocktails and (as Stuart puts it) "the endless machinations of a woman's heart." In short, the Sons play familiar music, even if you've never heard them before -- provided you've had a little Tompall Glaser and Lee Clayton in your diet.

The Sons honed their craft on the road, recording one self-released EP and one nine-song CD, which eventually became the prototype for Walk Alone. But if we had to trace the moment they really got kicked up the ladder, it would probably be their 1998 performance, by invitation, at Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July picnic.

The Sons were the first San Diego band to play Nelson's decades-old event; it was also their first gig in Texas. In the following year, Merle Haggard handpicked the Sons as his opening act. In December 1999, Ultimatum signed them, and work on Walk Alone began. The fact that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard were early supporters of the Sons -- long before anyone in the industry had taken much notice -- says volumes about the sorry state of affairs in the country-music business -- as does the fact that their labelmates include J. Mascis, Sugarcult, and the Incredible Moses Leroy.

"When I hear something like 'She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy' or 'I Wanna Talk About Me,' I want to put a tenpenny nail through the palm of my hand," Stuart says flatly. Neither airbrushed country stud-muffins nor neo-urban cowboys, the Sons come across on their first full-length as less at home with tight white T-shirts and Stetson hats than with gas-station coffee and 12-packs on special.

While on their first supporting tour, the Sons were invited to Johnny Cash's home, where they spent a few days bass fishing and recording two songs, "Nowhere Town" and "Spanish Eyes," under the production of Cash's son John Carter. Those new tracks got tagged onto Walk Alone's original 12-song playlist for a re-release. So, by a series of bizarre turns, the Bastard Sons came back to the fold in a very literal sense.

"The [Cash] family's been really good to us," Stuart says. "They've come to our defense several times. When I first thought up the band name and approached his organization about using it, I hoped that Johnny Cash would be the type of man that I thought he was. I hoped he'd be the kind who'd have a sense of humor and receive it as a tip of the hat, kind of an homage to him.

"But also," he continues, "as a thumb in the eye of Nashville country. And, of course, he got it immediately. He's not about stepping on the little guy. He told me, 'Look, I didn't have a record deal for 20 years, and they still don't play my stuff on country radio.'"

By that interpretation, Stuart and fellow Sons Dean Coates, Jeff Roberts, and Joey Galvan are equally the bastard offspring of all outlaw country singers, a group of singer-songwriters who never got the support they deserved from the Nashville establishment. Accusing the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash of merely aping an established formula obscures the fact that the formula was, in fact, never fully entrenched.

In allowing the Sons to use his family name, Cash went entirely against the advice of his management -- a touch of support that the band appreciates.

"For any artist to go up against his own people like that really says he does care about the next generation. I think [Cash] has more empathy with us than maybe we even realize. Johnny got us our first House of Blues gig. All those guys, Johnny and Willie and Merle, have been really decent about the whole thing, helping this band when we needed a break, giving us a chance."

And the Sons are making the most of that chance, if their packed shows are any indication. Here's another aspect of this band's charm -- their appeal to an audience that spans generations and musical tastes.

"I've seen people at our shows who are obviously up in years, being helped into the venue, and they'll end up sitting across from somebody who's 20 years old, covered in tattoos, with a foot of spiky hair. Our audience is like the Land of Misfit Toys; they're bastard people. But they're all aficionados of barroom country -- the music that came out of the bars instead of the studio, with million-dollar production values."

Asked why that kind of music has endured for so long, Stuart is more hesitant to judge.

"It probably touches something even more emotional in a lot of people," he says slowly, "considering the mess the country's in now . . . Maybe it harks back to a time when the singer still wrote the song, and it wasn't manufactured in a little cubicle, upstairs somewhere, in a publishing house.

"The old tricks are the best tricks," says the young dog, who's learned a few old ones. "I'm still a sucker for it. I could still go see somebody like Dale Watson or Willie, and watch them all night long. I never get tired of that music."