Lawrence Peters Outfit Puts Honky-Tonk Back in Country Music
To say that Lawrence Peters plays country music may be a bit misleading.
After all, he turned off country radio in 1979 when, he says, "it became unbearable to listen to." He hasn't returned since. So calling Peters a country artist doesn't really tell the whole story. It's more accurate to say that the frontman and namesake of The Lawrence Peters Outfit plays heartbreakin', hard-drinkin', honky-tonk country.
"It's the music I grew up on," Peters says by telephone from his home in Chicago. "I write in that old-school, honky-tonk style. We may throw in some other songs, but I don't even like to say that we do covers, because we're not interested in doing straight-up versions of other people's stuff and hits are pretty tedious to me. I like the deep cuts. We'll play Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash but we don't do the two Johnny Cash songs that everybody else plays. We may, however, play some of the thousands of other great Johnny Cash songs that nobody plays."
Nobody, that is, but The Lawrence Peters Outfit.
The Chicago-based band – with Peters out front on vocals and snare drum, Matt Gandurski on lead guitar, Josh Piet on stand-up bass, and Dave Sisson on rhythm guitar and backing vocals – started eight years ago, but it wasn't until 2012 that they released their debut recording, What You Been Missin'.
"I'm not a very expedient songwriter," Peters says. "I don't have volumes of stuff sitting around cluttering up the desk. I pulled the eight best originals and two covers that I enjoyed playing out. It's pretty straight forward honky-tonk all full of personal experience."
Although he was born and raised in Denver, Peters is quick to say that his family's deep Kansas roots have made him a son of two states.
"I think of Kansas and Colorado as being my dual homelands," he says. "I was born and raised in Denver, but my mom's family settled in Kansas in the 1850s. My mom's sister had a son two days before I was born so my cousin Bill and I spent all of our birthdays together and Christmases. We were in Kansas all the time. Kansas is in a deep part of my bones."
So it wasn't a surprise that after high school, Peters headed to the University of Kansas and soon became immersed in Lawrence's rich music scene.
"I quickly decided I wanted to be part of it so I started playing drums and singing in a rockabilly band called Rot Gut," he says. "That's when I started writing songs."
After hitting the ceiling in Lawrence, Peters decided to move to Chicago in 1992. He had frequently visited the city thanks to his then-girlfriend who moved there, and the cheap airline tickets that kept the relationship going another year.
Since then, he has recorded and performed with dozens of Chicago bands, including The Velcro Lewis Group, Plastic Crimewave Sound, The Golden Horse Ranch Band, The Harrow and Tijuana Hercules, but he is perhaps best known for providing the lead vocal on "The Old Black Hen," a track on the band Songs: Ohia's final album, Magnolia Electric Company.
"I was in a few country bands over the years and it was always somebody else's project and somebody else's songs," Peters says. "That was great experience, but after a long enough time I decided to take a gamble and start my own band. I wanted a vehicle to play my own material out live."
The Lawrence Peters Outfit is that vehicle, which is evident on What You Been Missin'.
Recorded on analog tape at Steve Albini's studio, Electrical Audio, the album features Peters' affable and smooth baritone on the song "Bear Creek," about his mother's death when he was a child. It shows that he can lift the mood too, on the gentle hoedown "Dirt on My Hands," with vocal assists from Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks. But the album's highlight is "The Wind," a three-chapter story song about the mental breakdowns of European settlers in the harsh living conditions of the plains.
"They would have this dugout house with a sod roof and you were covered in dust all the time," Peters says. "The wind, the relentless sound of it, and the fact there was nobody else around for miles just drove people insane. They called it prairie madness."
While the songs off What You Been Missin' have become set staples, Peters also has been writing again, thanks in part to a new monthly residency at the High-Hat Club in Chicago.
"I Didn't Mean to Go," about the death of musician and friend of K.C. Haywood, is one of the band's latest offerings.
"He died a couple years ago in a terrible accident," Peters says. "He and his girlfriend just got engaged and they were this great couple and he was a great musician and stellar human being. It was really devastating to everybody I knew. I just remember thinking of the absurdity of it and I had to process it somehow. I thought a song might be the way to do it. It was a surprise to write it from his perspective, and what he must have gone through leaving his loved ones behind."
He pauses, then adds a bit of honky-tonk philosophy.
"After all," he says, "death is the big event in your life."
What could be more country than that?