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A Pure Mix : Paul Kirby and His Cactus Brothers Don’t Compromise Sense of Adventure in Country-Rock Hybrid

When Paul Kirby was about 5 years old, a crew-cut, clean-shaven Willie Nelson was a frequent guest at the family’s home near Nashville. Kirby called him “Uncle Willie” and enjoyed jumping on him.

A few years later, Kirby was blowing harmonica in at-home jam sessions with Merle Haggard, another of the many country stars who employed his father, Dave Kirby, as a touring guitarist or studio session player.

He also recalls his father summoning him to play command recitals on the bugle for Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, family friends who had written “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up, Little Susie” for the Everly Brothers.

Kirby’s pure country childhood influences are abundantly present on “The Cactus Brothers,” the recent debut album by the Nashville-based band that he fronts as singer and main songwriter. But so are a lot of left-field rock influences that he picked up in his teens and 20s.

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Being dandled on Willie Nelson’s knee and trading licks with the Hag are certainly memories to cherish. But for Kirby, so are the times he got to play as an opening act for the Ramones, and the night when he and a handful of other Nashville punk-rock fans caught the Violent Femmes on one of their first tours. Kirby recalls hobnobbing at length after that show with the Femmes’ strange little singer, Gordon Gano.

“I went outside and rapped with him all night long. He was trying to convert me to the Lord,” Kirby said over the phone recently from a country-music festival site in Oregon, where the Cactus Brothers were a week into their first national tour. The seven-man band will play at the Coach House on Sunday.

At a time when Nashville is offering pat, if often immensely popular, recycling of the polished ‘70s Southern California rock sound epitomized by the Eagles, and the rougher Lynyrd Skynyrd-style Southern rock of the same era, the Cactus Brothers’ album represents a far more adventurous and unpredictable approach to crossbreeding country and rock roots.

Drawing upon an array of acoustic and electric instruments that includes banjo, dulcimer, fiddle and mandolin, the band delves into Celtic and rural American sources that predate commercial country music (the album includes arrangements of the traditional songs “Blackberry Blossom” and “Fisher’s Hornpipe”).

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Many of the tracks drive and swirl with a force and density almost never heard on a mainstream country recording (“The Cactus Brothers” was produced by Allen Reynolds and Mark Miller, key members of Garth Brooks’ record production team).

Kirby, who cites Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant as the most important influences on his singing, essays rockers and ballads in a rough, reedy, lived-in voice that makes up in feeling and urgency what it lacks in sparkle and purity.

The album’s highlights include “Our Love,” a sweetly lilting song in the tradition of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”; “Devil Wind,” a darkly mysterious, ferociously played rocker that cops the rhythm guitar riff of the Doors’ “Love Her Madly” (Kirby acknowledges the theft but says it happened subconsciously); and “The Price of Love,” an Everly Brothers oldie delivered in a hard-kicking style that brings to mind the Band stomping through “The Shape I’m In.”

“Almost every vocal and (instrumental) track on the album is absolutely live,” Kirby said. “We had to do a few fiddle overdubs, real minor stuff, but every song is basically a live track. We were real proud of that, because you don’t hear that coming out of Nashville, ever.”

Kirby, 31, said that he “went through a real big Hank Williams phase when I was a kid,” then moved on to rock favorites such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin.

In high school, he started a band with brothers Will and John Goleman, who are now the lead guitarist and bassist of the Cactus Brothers. In the early ‘80s, they fell under the influence of Jason & the Scorchers, a Nashville band that cherished country-music roots but played blow-out-the-walls rock ‘n’ roll inspired by punk bands and the Rolling Stones.

Kirby and the Goleman brothers formed Walk the West, a band with a similar country-plus-punk bent. After establishing a regional following in the South, Walk the West recorded an album for Capitol Records in 1986, toured nationally as opening act for the Smithereens, and also played some dates with the Ramones.

But the band, which also included fiddler Tramp and drummer David Kennedy, failed to catch fire commercially and lost its recording deal. Walk the West trudged on, trying to land a new recording contract. But Kirby said that by the late 1980s, labels had lost interest in hard rock with a country flavor.

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In 1986, Kirby said, one of his close friends from high school died in a car wreck, and he, Tramp and John Goleman performed a quiet, acoustic version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” at his funeral. They decided to continue that less amped-up approach as a side project to Walk the West.

At first, Kirby said, they called themselves the Casket Brothers in honor of their first gig, then thought better of it and decided to change the name slightly, to the Cactus Brothers.

The Cactus Brothers were just an offshoot of Walk the West until two or three years ago, when the players decided to emphasize their country alter-ego over their already-established identity as rockers with a country influence. Kirby says he was leery at first of the change in emphasis, “but when we did some out-of-town dates and saw the audience response, we saw that it was working.”

By then, the Cactus Brothers consisted of the five Walk the West members, plus steel guitar player Sam Poland and David Schnaufer, a folkie who had recorded three independently issued instrumental albums of dulcimer music.

“He seemed to fit into some of the real country stuff I had written,” Kirby said. “The dulcimer was real sweet, and I thought, ‘What a strange instrument, but what a pretty instrument.’ ”

Schnaufer also liked rock, as it turned out, and had no objection to electrifying his dulcimers so he could fit into the band’s louder songs.

“There are times now when we have to say, ‘Turn that dulcimer down,’ ” Kirby said lightly.

When the Cactus Brothers began in earnest in the early ‘90s, the Kentucky HeadHunters already had tapped a large country market with a sound anchored in ‘70s hard rock.

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“The HeadHunters were cool; maybe they were opening some doors where we could slide in and get some (radio) play,” Kirby said. “But really, we were playing what we really like to play,” rather than patterning themselves after a profitable model.

In fact, the Cactus Brothers’ rock-and-country hybrid is far more distinctive than the uninspired Led Zep-in-a-coonskin-cap bar-band approach that won the HeadHunters its initial success a few years ago.

After causing a stir on the local Nashville scene, where Kirby says such notables as Don Everly and bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe became staunch fans, the Cactus Brothers landed a deal with Liberty Records. Predictably, this hard-to-define band has proven to be a tough sell when it comes to winning acceptance on narrowly formatted radio stations.

“It’s kind of weird for us in the country scene,” Kirby said. “I don’t think anybody’s doing what we’re doing.”

So the band’s first tour has been geared more toward rock clubs.

“This whole tour, we’ve only got three or four two-step joints” where the Cactus Brothers are apt to be confronted by fans caught up in the country dance craze.

“We like the enthusiastic rock crowd. Some of the old country die-hards say, ‘Play us some two-step stuff.’ But we say, ‘Well, we’re not really a two-step band. We’re more rockin’ country.’ ”

So far, neither country nor alternative-rock radio, the two likeliest outlets for the Cactus Brothers, has given the band much play.

The strategy now, Kirby said, is to win a grass-roots national following by slugging it out on the road.

“If this tour goes pretty decent and we can get some good reviews, hopefully we can get the record company to dish out some cash so we can make another video,” he said.

“We’re guaranteed a second record. We’ll hammer at it again and hopefully get some radio play of some sort, either college or country. We’re just having a good time, going from gig to gig and seeing all the sights.”

With a live show that can incorporate everything from bluegrass standards to Cream’s “Strange Brew,” from Hank Williams to “Whole Lotta Love,” from Merle Travis and Bob Wills chestnuts to “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes, the Cactus Brothers may also leave audiences feeling as if they’ve gone on a musical sight-seeing tour.

* The Cactus Brothers and the Honky Tonk Hellcats play Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $8. (714) 496-8930.


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