It's not recorded on the official Keokuk, Iowa, website, but for country
music fans everywhere, the greatest moment in the city's history was the
meeting of Scott Young and Smelley Kelly. "We were in glee club
together," remembers Kelley. "We really started hanging out after high
school, but we were definitely in glee club, and we'd see each other at
Boy Scout camp. He was in a different troop than I was, from the other
side of town." Young's father taught band and vocal music at the local
high school, and Young followed his father' musical lead, becoming a
On the shores of the Mississippi River, Keokuk was, according to Kelley,
"a large sized community compared to the towns around where we were
from...The other towns were, like, one post office, one gas station, two
bars towns. (Keokuk) had a lotta bars, a lotta churches, when I grew up."
What it didn't have was a lotta recreational options. Kelley remembers
spending evenings "pick-up surfing." "You get real drunk and climb on the
roof of a pick-up truck and try to surf until you fall into the bed. It's
hard finding entertainment there sometimes."
It was a limited horizon for Kelley's pursuit of coffehouse poetry, so in
1980 he headed west, settling in San Francisco. Well accustomed to the
Keokuk bar scene by then (the Iowa drinking age was 18 at the time, and
Kelley took full advantage of the early opportunity), his hometown vices
reached new extremes in the more cosmopolitan Bay Area. "I was a drunk
when I hit the streets here," he recalls, "but the party got wild for
awhile. Like to killed me. I have no qualms about talking about that,
because I've quit everything now. It was a rough road outta there, a
lotta people didn't make it outta the big party of the 80s."
A contributing factor to his survival may well have been the arrival of
Scott Young about a year later. "I kept gettin' ahold of him telling him
`Hey, with your talent you oughta be out here. All you're gonna do back
there is end up playing covers in bars.'"
Young, meanwhile, had been laid off from the factory where he'd been
making parts for Caterpillar tractors until Cat went bankrupt. "I wasn't
thinking of a country music career," Scott says. "I was just thinking
about moving to a major urban area where I could find a job. Jimmy Carter
extended everybody's unemployment so I just collected it out here."
Meanwhile, Kelley and Young started getting together with friends for
weekend jams, which included singing the country songs they both loved.
One thing led to another, and in short order they were half of a group
called the Fillmore Four. That led to a five year tenure with the Genuine
Diamelles, a "semi-acapella" quartet that Kelley remembers playing
"everything from rock & roll to bluegrass to blues to gospel," including a
fair sprinkling of country and western. "In the 80's you had to slip it
in on people," he recalls. "You'd play a Jefferson Airplane song and
follow it up with Merle Haggard."
San Francisco may not be the first place you think of when you think of
country music, but there is precedent for doing country covers, including
the songbook of the quintessential San Francisco band, the Grateful Dead.
To this day, asserts Kelley, "We still get Deadheads coming up and going
`Hey man, that's a great Dead song,' and we say `I'm sorry, but that's a
George Jones song, or a Buck Owens song, or Merle Haggard."
When the Diamelles came to an end, Kelley persuaded Young that it was time
to do a "real country band," Young says. "I was thinking about writing
songs, like city western, talking about city things, but with a country
sound. It always seems like country's about cowboys and Texas and the
south, not about farmers or Wisconsin or things that don't sound as sexy
as Texas. It seems to be about cowboys rather than farmers because they
dress better, I guess. But it seems like farmers are more representative
If anyone doubts the credibility of farmers in the world of country music,
Smelley Kelley will be happy to set them straight. When a Texan
challenged Kelley, dismissing him as an Iowa hayseed not sufficiently
western to sing country, Kelley replied "Ya'll got some pretty good
barbecue back there in Texas, but the next time you're in one of them
barbecue pits, go in the back room and look at what they're barbecuing up
and it'll say Iowa pork. Now until you've pulled on them green rubber
boots and stepped out into a foot and a half of hog shit, and wrestled
with a 400 pound hog to cut its nuts off, don't be telling me about what
country is and what it ain't." Even a Texan had to concede the point when
it was put in those terms.
Kelley wanted to do the material that he'd heard at home, on the radio and
in the bars. "Back in the 70's" he says, "when they had the outlaw
movement going on, I was working in a steel shop. They had three
different radios tuned to three different country stations. I got
thoroughly inundated. We were tuning into Carthage, Illinois, and down in
Hannibal and the one in Keokuk, too. I really liked the one in Carthage,
because it was a kind of trucker's station and they played more Red Sovine
and stuff. And I'd always heard it in the bars. The bars I chose didn't
have a lot of rock & roll on the juke box, just a lot of country music, so
I spent a lot of time getting drunk and listening to it."
Kelley booked the first Red Meat gig as a duo, but before they played,
Steve Cornell of the Movie Stars, a band that the Genuine Diamelles had
shared a number of gigs with, was recruited to contribute guitar and pedal
steel. He suggested that if she wasn't too busy, the Movie Stars bass
player would be a valuable addition. Young got in touch with Jill Olson,
who just happened to be a fellow Iowan, and the first Red Meat performance
was by a quartet. Soon thereafter drummer Les James came aboard, and yet
another refugee from the Movie Stars, guitarist Michael Montalto,
completed the lineup.
"We were just trying to do trad, we were trying to do a real honky tonk
sort of thing," Kelley remembers. "We had no idea that there was going to
be an alternative/Americana/roots thing going on around us while we were
trying to do it. We were surprised the first time they called us
'alternative country.' But compared to what was on the radio, well, yes,
it was alternative."
What it was was a potent blend of Bakersfield honky tonk, Texas swing,
rockabilly shuffle and good old heart-tugging, beer drinking, my
babydoneleftme country schmaltz. "I tore it down real good, so it's real
easy for me to slide into that space," Kelley admits. "Even though it's
been so many years since I spent all my time in there, I'm still in a lot
of bars (to sing) and to be able to sing all them mournful songs about
being drunk and having your old lady leave you is real common for me. I
spent a lot of years pulling that shit, so it's easy to for me to swap
into those feelings, even though I'm not falling over when the night's
"Packing up is always kinda fun," he continues "because I'm packing up and
people are falling all over. I remember 'That's why I don't do this no
more.'" Sobriety carries other advantages, too. "It's so marvelous
waking up and not having a black eye," Kelly exults.
The other essential ingredient to the Red Meat style is a heaping helping
of humor, evident from the material on their first album, 1997's Meet Red
Meat. Songs like "Inner Redneck," "The Girl With The Biggest Hair" and "12
Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan" are classics in a country music tradition that
passes back through Buck Owens' great novelty hits and into the mists of
country music origins. Kelley sees a role for himself in carrying on the
tradition of country humorists beginning with the days when a player,
usually the bass player, would be chosen to wear some outlandish hillbilly
getup with a fright wig and tell corny jokes between tunes, and extending
through the country comedians like Minnie Pearl and Jerry Clower that
formed an essential part of every Grand Ol Opry broadcast from the
That 1997 album was completely self produced, on the band's own Ranchero
Records label. Ranchero is operated for the group by Olson's husband,
Owen Bly, who is the all around go-to guy for anything that's not actually
done on stage. "He's the record company, he manages the tours, he does a
lot of stuff," says Young. "We call him the Colonel. Like Colonel Tom
Parker. Colonel Owen Bly."
Kelley chimes in with praises for Bly. "The record company is Owen, and
Owen is Jill's husband, and Owen drives the van, and Owen sells the CDs at
the shows. And since he's the bass player's husband, we can totally trust
him. When you're working in a small family organization like this it's
nice; you never have to worry if anybody's ripping you off.
For their second album, 13, the band did look outside the family for some
assistance. "Jill called me up one day," Kelley says, "and said 'Dave
Alvin's doing a poetry reading up at City Lights Bookstore. Why don't we
go up there?' So her and me and Owen went up there, and we gave him our
album and we each bought a book and got it signed and we said 'We'd really
like to work with you sometime.' He took the album and said he'd give it
a listen. So Jill and Owen went down to LA to see one of his shows and she
asked him "Did you listen to the album?' and he said he was out on tour
but he'd listen to it when he got home and why didn't she give him a call.
He gave her his number. We were going down to LA to do a show, and Jill
called him and said, 'Did you listen to the album?' and he said 'I
actually did. There's some good stuff on there.' So she says, "What are
you doing Saturday night? We're playing a show down there and we'll put
you on the list.'"
"After seeing our live show he said 'Well, how long would this take. I've
got a couple of weeks open this summer.' So it basically came down to
Jill's persistence. She just pestered the hell out of him."
As far as taking on an outside producer was concerned, "I probably
wouldn't have done it," claims Young, "but it was Owen's idea and it
turned out to be a good one, because Dave really helped us to get our act
Kelley describes the benefits of production help succinctly. "Democracy
doesn't work as good in the studio as monarchy."
13 garnered favorable notice from the press, and a top 20 spot in the
Gavin Americana charts. Meanwhile, Steve Cornell had moved to Los
Angeles, and when he couldn't make it back to the Bay Area for gigs the
band turned to Max Butler to substitute on pedal steel. By the time they
were ready to go back into the studio with Alvin to record Alameda County
Line, Cornell had resigned from the band and Butler was a full fledged
piece of Red Meat. As it turns out, he is also the composer of the title
track of their third album.
In fact, he wrote two, the title track and the instrumental
Confidential," which also feature's Scott Young's trombone chops. Jill
Olson contributed three new numbers and Michael Montalto penned the
instrumental "Buckeye." There's still plenty of Scott Young on the new
album, though, including a reprise of "Lolita," which also appeared
first album (and a side by side listen will tell you all you need to know
about the value of Dave Alvin in the studio).
"Under The Wrench," Young's
ode to a Dodge Dart that's "had the same starter every since Jimmy Carter
was the President of the land," has been featured on NPR's Car Talk.
There's a television connection, too. "I was watching All My Children,"
says Young, "and Edmund was helping Brook English out of some sort of
crisis and she thanked him. He said
'Well, that's what I'm here for.' and
I thought that was a good idea for a song." It was a good idea that
became a great song.
Three albums in, Red Meat's ability to tour in support of their latest is
still limited by the fact that all the members maintain day jobs, but
they've managed to make swings through the midwest and not-too-deep south,
as well as keeping up a regular schedule in their Bay Area base. A trip
through the Northwest is in their plans since, as Kelley says, "We gotta
lot of hippie friends in Eugene we gotta go play for." Wherever they go,
a party is sure to erupt, and for those in places they can't get too,
there's a pair of live tracks hidden on Alameda County Line.
Meanwhile, they're busy carrying the honky tonk torch and having a good
time doing it. "It just tickles the hell out of me that I'm on three
records." Kelly says contentedly. "When I started doing this, my one great
goal would have been to actually have a record and take it out on tour.
That would be really cool. And it's happened a bunch of times, so
anything that happens now is just gravy. With all the things that happen
to us, if we can just keep on doing what we're doing, I'm happy. 'Cause
it's really a pleasure to play with so many talented people."