In honor of tonight's Dusters reunion show and DVD taping at Gibson Showcase, here's more of the band history compiled in this week's Scene from interviews with band members L. David Barnette, Ken McMahan and Jeffrey Perkins. After the jump.
Ken McMahan: We started in 1986, and there was all this synergy back then between 91 Rock and Cat's Records and the music scene. You had all these [DJs] like Regina [Gee], Adam Dread and Clark Parsons at 91, and the music was getting out there.
L. David Barnette: We played several gigs as PJ & the Dusters. We had Jerry Dale McFadden on keyboards, and the "PJ" was Paul J. Niehaus [now with Lambchop and Calexico]. He drove an old gold Duster, and that's how the name came about. It was almost like we were four bands in one, because all of us were writing songs. When we did his songs, it was more alt-country. Kenny's was more blues, and I was more cowpunk meets hard rock. We were kinda flip-floppin' between styles. Jerry Dale ended up leaving and getting his solo gig.
McMahan: Our very first gig [as the Dusters] was at the Alt Writers Night on Wednesdays at Elliston Square that Jerry Dale hosted. I remember it well, ‘cause we rehearsed for about two months. But we came off sounding more rockabilly than Edgar Winter-type stuff. This girl I knew told me afterward I should turn it loose—and when I turned it loose, out came this thing that we are (laughs).
Jeffrey Perkins: Leo Overtoom was the original drummer, the one who went to Belmont with Kenny and Barney. Then he split, and it was Chris Sherlock. He did the one record, This Ain't No Jukebox—this sounds so Spinal Tap-ish, it's incredible.
McMahan: Leo actually played on Jukebox instead of Sherlock even though Shirley's picture is on it.
Barnette: We all lived in a house on Beechwood Avenue, one of the side streets over by Corner Music. Back in those days, it was smack in the middle of a "you boys don't belong here" kind of neighborhood. And here we were, a bunch of white boys from Belmont playing the blues. But we'd finish rehearsal and step outside, and there'd be all these black families out on their porches listening. We figured we were doing something right. And we all got along. They all looked out for us.
McMahan: I think we did structural damage to that house.
Barnette: There were these three brothers who lived next door. One night Kenny and I had been out carousing, and we'd come home and passed out. Next thing we knew, the guys from next door were yelling, "Boys! Boys! Your car is on fire!"
McMahan: It was a '60 Plymouth Savoy, with the big fins, and we were coming back from the Gold Rush, so you can put that together. I threw a cigarette out the window, and it blew into the back seat. The car started smoldering, and I didn't want to pull a burning car into a gas station. So we drove on home.
Barnette: It was hard back then getting gigs. There were not a lot of places to play, and definitely not for a blues-rock trio. There was Cantrell's, there was Roosters, which I guess is where the Mercy Lounge is now. I think that was still when Tommy Smith's dad owned Elliston Square, and we played there a lot. We played lots of weird gigs. Prison gigs. There was this one show in Carbondale, Ill., where the entire dance floor was filled with people in hospital beds.
McMahan: What happened was, we got done playing our sound check, and the club asked us if we would mind playing for some kind of day-out program. We said sure. And outside they had a bus full of patients, and right behind that was a flatbed truck stacked with wheelchairs. All these people loaded into the club and started getting as drunk as they could. Initially it was kind of weird to see all these people with drinks in a hospital bed. But once we saw they were having a good time, it made us feel good.
Perkins: Barney had this old Dodge Ram van, and I think he'd had it since day one, when [Reptile Records chief] Scott Tutt was kind of their Svengali. It was the biggest piece of shit you've ever seen. It was like a peep booth in a porn shop on wheels. Haul a peep booth out of the Purple Onion, stick some Bridgestone tires on it, and that was this van.
Barnette: We met Scott Tutt through Jerry Dale. He loved the band, and we let him do everything. He employed Kenny when he was off the road at the record label.
McMahan: The Gold Rush was the center of the scene. There'd be the guys from Walk the West in there, the Questionnaires, the Royal Court of China. They made us feel accepted. The corner booth—that was the key spot. When you got to the corner booth, you knew you'd made it.
Barnette: It was a nightly occurrence to see what band got that booth. The Scorchers were king daddies back then, and they had it whenever they were in town.
Perkins: Imagine what the Gold Rush was like in 1991. There was always some real knucklehead stuff going on. I remember Kenny and me going into the bathroom one time to take a whiz, and there's Steve Earle passed out in the shitter.
McMahan: No, he was talking to me from under the stall, telling me how much he loved the band.
Perkins: I made the mistake of leaving a credit card on the bar one night in sight of [Shaver/Yayhoos bassist] Keith Christopher. That was 1992, and I'm still paying off the tab.
McMahan: The Gold Rush was a level playing field. Everybody was at their worst.
Barnette: When Kenny would drink, he wouldn't get drunk; he would get high and stay up there for days. One night I was trying to haul him into the van, and he turns around and says, "I loooove yooou, Barney," and he proceeds to punch me in the groin.
McMahan: I punched him in the balls? (pauses) Yeah, that's true. Don't know why. I was usually too busy hugging and kissing him.
Barnette: Then when that shooting occurred, they took out that booth and made that part of the bathrooms. Now it's a damn fern bar in there.
McMahan: Billy Gibbons [from ZZ Top] saw us at Elliston Square one night. He pulled up in a rented Cadillac. That's always classy. The PA and the lights went out at the same time, and we just kept on playin'. He told us later he liked it when the lights went out. He said it reminded him of old times. I thought I'd made it.
Barnette: It was a great time.
McMahan: In those days, the Satellites were my heroes. That's the kind of music I thought was on the way. The T-Birds [Fabulous Thunderbirds] had been signed, there was Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Scorchers, the Satellites had that big hit [with "Keep Your Hands to Yourself"]. I'd barely been out of Tennessee, and we were going to Paris for four or five days. A journalist told me we were cult heroes. It was news to me.
Perkins: I guess Barney told you about getting banned from Summer Lights?
Barnette: Where's all this "banned" stuff coming from? What happened, we were at Summer Lights, and we had about 13, 14,000 people for our show.
McMahan: We played right after the Kingsnakes, with Mike Henderson and Kenny Greenberg, and I think James Stroud might've still been on drums. We were playing "Red Hot and Ready to Roll" off our EP, and I looked over and there was a three-foot flame leaping off the cone of the monitor.
Barnette: There was all this smoke pouring from the amp, and I was just rockin' out right in the middle of it with my hair flying. That monitor was full of fiberglass, and eventually I figured it probably wasn't good for me to be huffin' all that stuff (laughs). Of course everybody accused me of putting a cigarette out on it. But I showed them the cigarette, which was still on the floor away from the monitor.
McMahan: They wouldn't hire us the next year. Then they stopped booking rock bands. Shortly after that, they didn't have a festival.
Barnette: Our biggest frustration was keeping drummers.
Perkins: I moved to town in July 1991 from Chicago, and after living in town for a week I heard from a friend of a friend there was this band with a buzz going called the Dusters. The rest is rock history!
McMahan: When Jeff hit the band, we were at a new plateau. We tended to go in cycles: we were up in '87, cooled off a little, then picked back up in '90. Our best crowd was the Vandy crowd. But every few years they'd leave, and we'd have to win over a whole new bunch of students.
Perkins: I'd say the Rock Block had peaked by 1991.
McMahan: When we moved across the street from Elliston Place to the Exit/In, I kinda felt it was over for us. Then it just became about filling the room. We missed the intimacy you get when you pack 200 people into a tiny room. I don't know if it was the Seattle scene that did it in, but the roots-rock explosion just kind of fizzled.
Barnette: Of course, Scott was trying to look out for the label's interests too, and there were a couple of deals we missed out on. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. He and I have buried the hatchet, but back then it was getting to a point where I was going to have to choose between him and Kenny, and I didn't want to get into a position where Kenny and I wouldn't be friends.
McMahan: Dave was moving to Florida, and Jeff was getting better gigs—better paying gigs. After seven years of beating our heads against a wall, it seemed like a good time to try something else. Our last show was New Year's Eve 1992-93 at the Exit/In, and I remember it being very anticlimactic. We didn't fill the room, and it just made us feel we were doing the right thing.
Barnette: So as life has it, we started doing something else. I go off to open a music store in Florida, and I go to work for Mars Music, and I go to California and start building hot rods. And then, on a chance meeting one day, I run into Kenny. On Beale Street.
Perkins: Their chemistry is a real special thing to watch. They're both intelligent guys with great senses of humor, not just knucklehead rocker types. Without sounding smarmy, I've been here 16 years now and I've played with a lot of cool people, and I've encountered very few assholes.
Barnette: I don't want to sound arrogant, but we came out slingin' as big an ax as we could find, and in our minds we were kings of the world. We loved what we did, and Kenny and I always had this natural connection, almost like reading the other guy's mind.
Perkins: Everyone's habit is pretty much gone, and we look back and laugh about all the knucklehead things we did. Now it's like we're growing old gracefully. And we can still rock.
Barnette: I hope this is the beginning of a new chapter. Let's face it: I hate to say, but we're full-grown men now, and it would be great just to go out a few times a month and put on a rock show.
McMahan: We used to have "Legends In Our Spare Time" written in lipstick on a mirror in the living room of the Duster house on Beechwood Avenue. Sums it all up!