Randy Weeks - Hello, Stranger

Randy Weeks lives in Santa Monica, four blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Not in some fancy beach house, mind you: "I live in a little shack that they used to keep rakes in but is now fixed up, and myself, about seven guitars and my girlfriend have somehow squeezed into it," he says. Still, the Southern California shore is a far cry from Weeks' native Minnesota, and that's the way he likes it. As he sings in the opening lines of "Miles Away", the first track on his new album: "Los Angeles, that's the place to be/They ain't never gettin' rid of me/It never rains and I don't freeze/The temperature's always in the 70s." It's a good thing he likes where he's living, because the setting is the only thing that's sunny about Sold Out At The Cinema, Weeks' self-released second solo album. As on his 2000 HighTone disc Madeline, the songs document one missed connection after another, cruel words and dashed hopes and heartaches galore. Even that uplifting first track ends with Weeks sighing, "I want to touch you but you're miles away." The contrast between warm days and lonely nights is Weeks' trademark. His songs match bluesy riffs with sing-along melodies and bitter-pill lyrics, and his sandy, slightly flattened voice swings on a pendulum between sardonic resignation and heartfelt please-baby pleas. But there's nothing exactly grim about the music; apart from the murder-ballad closer "Linoleum" ("I found her twisted up with my old chum/Right here on the linoleum"), Weeks sounds like a guy who's been around long enough to let things come and go. And so he should. Weeks may not have the stature he deserves, considering his years of service in the California roots-country scene, but he's had a pretty good run. On the verge of his 50th birthday, he's right in his prime. Between the patronage of Lucinda Williams (who covered Weeks' lusty lament "Can't Let Go" on her Grammy-winning gold record Car Wheels On A Gravel Road), a circle of friends and collaborators in L.A. that includes stalwarts such as Tony Gilkyson and rising stars such as Mike Stinson, and a healthy hometown following that turns out for his regular gigs at the Cinema Bar, Weeks sounds more satisfied than his songs let on. As he puts it, with characteristic understatement, "I've been hanging in there." Weeks moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s because Minnesota was too damn inhospitable. "I froze, basically, was the deal," he says. "I was driving an old beat-up Ford Ranger, which I had to fix up every other day. I got tired of the cold." Weeks fled southwest with a friend. "We had big musical aspirations," he says, acknowledging Southern California's legacy as a birthing ground of both L.A. country rock and Bakersfield honky-tonk. "But a big part of it was the allure of the sunshine and the orange trees." Weeks played music around town for a few years and eventually met singer-songwriter Jeff Rymes; they formed a twangy outfit called the Lonesome Strangers with bassist Nino Del Pesco and drummer Joe Nanini (the latter of whom had played with Wall Of Voodoo and had a lot of contacts). "Almost immediately out of the gate, playing with the Lonesome Strangers was a great opportunity," Weeks recalls. The band was soon sharing bills with Wall Of Voodoo and the Blasters and gaining a following in the city's burgeoning early '80s roots-rock scene centered around the Palomino club in North Hollywood. They were more traditionally minded than some of their contemporaries; the harmonies of Weeks and Rymes evoked brother acts such as the Delmores, Stanleys and Everlys. Rymes was the primary songwriter, but Weeks contributed material as well. Among the people they impressed was local guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, who included a Lonesome Strangers song on a 1985 compilation called A Town South Of Bakersfield. That album became best-known for introducing Anderson's protege Dwight Yoakam to the world, but it also included standout cuts from Rosie Flores and other roots-country mavericks. In 1986, the same year he produced Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., Anderson took the Lonesome Strangers into the studio. The band's first album, Lonesome Pine, got good reviews and featured a guest appearance by Chris Hillman. (It also included the song "Ton Of Shame", co-written by Weeks and Rymes, which shows up in a new version on Sold Out At The Cinema.) Yoakam's exploding career gave the Strangers some convenient coattails to ride. They were soon touring the country with him, opening shows and seeing "the larger side of life," as Weeks puts it. They didn't quite fit in with the neo-traditionalist movement that Yoakam, Steve Earle and others were spearheading. "We were more like this underground hybrid country-hillbilly sort of band," Weeks says. Their self-titled second album in 1989 on HighTone included two covers, the Delmore Brothers' "Lay Down My Old Guitar" and Johnny Horton's "Goodbye Lonesome, Hello Baby Doll". The latter track, somewhat to everyone's surprise, became a country Top 40 hit. Suddenly, the Lonesome Strangers were making big-city radio appearances and enjoying a little bit of the limelight. "It wasn't like we were changing our music; we were just looking for an opportunity to be heard," Weeks says. "It wasn't a bad thing, it was a good thing. I just don't know if it was the right thing. We didn't really capitalize on it." In fact, once the touring for the album was done, the band started to dissolve, and Rymes eventually moved back east. Weeks, meanwhile, stayed busy in the clubs of L.A., playing on his own and with friends. But the scene that had bustled in the mid-'80s had lost a lot of steam. The music that defined L.A. was now coming out of Compton, not Bakersfield. "There was such a dry period in the '90s," Weeks says. Still, a lucky gig early in the decade paid off for him in more than one way. He was playing at the Palomino and one of the songs in his set was "Can't Let Go". Among those in the crowd was Lucinda Williams; a few years later, she called Weeks and said she wanted to record the song for her next album. Weeks was flattered but didn't think too much about it, as Williams famously struggled for several years to get her record just right. In the interim, Weeks recorded a one-off Lonesome Strangers reunion album with Rymes in 1997, for Anderson's Little Dog label. But when Lucinda's Car Wheels finally came out in 1998, "Can't Let Go" was all over Americana and AAA radio stations. Having his song recorded by someone who was being called the best songwriter in the country was, needless to say, a confidence boost. "That was really helpful," Weeks says. "It kind of got me going as far as writing songs. I had written some before that, but I really kind of buckled down at that point. It gave me the incentive to want to make a record." The result was Madeline, an auspicious debut that includes Weeks' own take on "Can't Let Go" and a brace of other country-soul gems. Weeks calls it "my Memphis album," and there's more than a little Booker T. in its chugging R&B shuffle. The shuffle is still there on Sold Out At The Cinema, but the new disc feels unapologetically Southern Californian. The title is a reference to the club where Weeks and his band hold down a regular gig. As the roots scene has surged again in Los Angeles, the crowds have gotten bigger and more diverse. Some of the people who come out remember Weeks from his Lonesome Strangers days; some of them were barely out of diapers at the time. Sometimes drummer Mike Stinson, a singer-songwriter with his own growing fanbase, will get up and sing a few numbers. So will guitarist Tony Gilkyson, a former member of X and Lone Justice. "It's more of an impromptu situation," Weeks says of the Cinema Bar shows. "We play for three hours, and it's pretty much 95 percent original material, and it's never the same. Speaking for myself, I don't know when I'm going to play the bridge or who's going to play the solo. We're always wandering into something and coming out of it with some new musical thing. I think that's part of the reason the audience is so enthusiastic. The crowd just likes to sit there and see when we're going to screw up." The album shows that same loose-limbed confidence, with keyboardist Danny McGough (who co-produced with Weeks) goosing the grooves in freewheeling Al Kooper style. Weeks can sound variously like a less lissome Freedy Johnston and a more grizzled Rhett Miller, but what really sets him apart is his effortless integration of blues riffs with pop hooks and country harmonies. It makes sense that the album's lone cover is the Rolling Stones' "Take It Or Leave It", which treads the same territory. Without making too big a deal of it, the music aspires to what used to be called rock 'n' roll. Weeks is selling the album only at shows and online. He's planning to make a distribution deal, but doesn't sound like he's in too much of a hurry. He's also looking to license some of the songs for use on movie soundtracks, one of the side benefits of living in Los Angeles (several songs from Madeline made it into movies ranging from Sunshine State to Shallow Hal). "I could've waited around until I had the right opportunity to record with somebody anxious to get behind me," he says. "But I didn't want to wait around." For the moment, all those heartbroken songs notwithstanding, Weeks sounds happy to be where he is. He chuckles at the suggestion that he now qualifies as an elder statesman of the L.A. scene. "I would have to say so," he says. "I've gone through a lot of phases since I moved out to California, a lot of little hot spots. But I have to say, this is my favorite one."