The story goes that Casey Cannon — under normal circumstances educated, sharp, not prone to confusion, but in this case, road-weary and beginning to succumb to the effects of low humidity and the relentlessly monotonous desert landscape alongside guitarist Xavier Gonzalez — somehow mixed up the city named Twentynine Palms with the street called Mule Team Road. And in one serendipitous moment, out of the ancient dust plastered to his brow by the sweat of the last 100 miles, 29 Mules came into being.
Cannon and Gonzalez, both with roots in Texas and California, met, as so many talented musicians do — pushing gear at Guitar Center. Whether or not the stars aligned is anyone’s guess, but only fate could be responsible for such chemistry — the result of which is balls-to-the-wall, boot-to-the-booty, hip-shakin’, rock solid, smart, sexy, badass country music. That’s not to say there isn’t the occasional sun-kissed ballad in the band’s 500-song repertoire, but inasmuch as a country band can genuinely rock — 29 Mules does.
The union that’s been tearing up the L.A. rockabilly/psychobilly scene like a slow-moving twister through the plains, began as a funky blues-rock thing more than a decade ago. “Kenny Wayne Shepherd meets the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” says Gonzalez. But given that they both had at least half a heart in the Lone Star State, their progression from rock to country was a natural one. It is the symbiosis between Gonzalez’s shredding blues sensibility and Cannon’s multi-instrumental quickdraw plus clever, country boy charisma that give their sound the edge that separates them from the pack.
“I’ve always done things differently — musically and artistically,” says Cannon. “I never really existed on the same plane as most people, especially in Fort Worth.” Despite his differences with some of the state’s majority socio-political viewpoints — “the real cowboys of the South are open-minded” — Cannon’s and Gonzalez’s fondness for Texas is undeniable. “I still love where I come from — farmers and ranchers. My grandpa could tell it was gonna rain a week ahead of time by the cattle.”
Cannon and Gonzalez, who form the nucleus of 29 Mules, have been both blessed and cursed with a rotating stable of crack players (David Raven,drums; Johnny Griparic,bass; Ted Russell Kamp,bass; David Spangler,harmonica) who, because of engagements with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Slash, Shooter Jennings and Jason Bonham, are not always available to plow the local and regional club circuits with the Mules. This makes a permanent lineup an elusive goal, but one they will continue to pursue.
In a live environment, response to the Mules’ brand of raucous, party-time country music is most noticeable on the dance floor, where even people not normally prone to shaking their stuff in public are compelled to get in on the action. On stage, great songs played with gusto are accented by Cannon’s infectious energy and Raven’s old-school punker spin on the drum kit, but ultimately it’s Gonzalez’s skilled and soulful handling of those six strings that drives this mule train. A natural bluesman who’s been playing since he was 16 years old, Gonzalez’s style tips a hat to Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughn, breaking into solos that summon Carlos Santana — and somehow it all weaves seamlessly into the band’s country patchwork. Raised on Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Gonzales knew the only kind of country he would be able to roll with was the outlaw variety. “We want to take some traditional stuff and beef it up — it’s so much more fun,” he says.
While 29 Mules goes best with whiskey shots, snakeskin boots and eau de dive bar, the next best thing to seeing them live is rockin’ them on the iPod. The band released 80 Feet Deep, its second full-length, late last year and a third is in the works — which Gonzalez says, despite being more mature, will “still kick ass.” But it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll, or if you wanna rock Nashville.
Their biggest break thus far — besides working with some of the best musicians money can’t buy — has been getting a rotation on SIRIUS XM satellite radio’s Outlaw Country station. The airplay has expanded the band’s fanbase to the Midwest, where they hope to tour in the near future.
Next up for 29 Mules is a short tour of Texas and just maybe a little love from the HBO cult series True Blood. For now, you can catch them Thursday, Aug. 12, at Sans Souci in Ventura and at the Ventura County Fair Station Stage on Saturday, Aug. 14, at 9 p.m.