They're Waiting for a Reel Big Deal : O.C. Pop Beat: Jeff Pearson, a country musician fishing for a break, hopes he's on the verge of something good. His Crazy Horse concert Tuesday played up family, faith and romance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight years after he left Huntington Beach for Nashville, Jeff Pearson, country musician by profession and fisherman by avocation, has some tales to tell. But they are still about fish that got away rather than whoppers he's reeled in.

Pearson has yet to release a record, or to see a song he has written for another artist climb the country charts. But he has remained active and afloat since 1985 in a big musical pond in which many a would-be contender quickly goes belly up.

"It's funny--I've been on two different labels as an artist, and nothing has worked," Pearson said during a recent interview while back home to visit friends and family and play a concert at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana with his harmony group, Three Wheel Drive. "I take my hat off to anyone who has major-league success, because it is such a monumental task."

Instead of major-league success, Pearson, a youthful-looking 42, has found the wherewithal to make a living in music, and has put himself in a position to perhaps land that big one after all.

His smooth, personable stage manner caught the eye of the management at the Bluebird Cafe, a Nashville songwriters' hangout famous as a place where future stars first get noticed. For four years, he has been the emcee for weekly Sunday night songwriters' concerts at the Bluebird.

"I pride myself on being a communicator on stage and offstage," Pearson said. "Four months after I first played the Bluebird, they were calling me to be the alternate emcee. They knew I could talk to a crowd and hold their interest. (I've gotten) to meet some of the best songwriters in the world. Other than that, it's just fun."

While pursuing recording opportunities of his own, Pearson has had a steady job for the past three years as a staff songwriter at Tom Collins Music, a Nashville publishing company that hawks its writers' wares to singers and their record producers in hopes of getting them placed on a hit record.

"My daily routine is that I have my own little office in the publishing company, and I report there regularly--just about every day. If I stay home, I have a tendency to want to go fishing."

Sometimes, Pearson said, he finds time for his chief pleasure even on business days. He lives "out in the woods" in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn., less than a mile from the Harpeth River.

"I'll be driving to work and say, 'I've got an extra 20 minutes. I'll catch a fish or two on the way to work.' "

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On stage at the Crazy Horse during their early show Tuesday night, Pearson and his two partners in Three Wheel Drive went angling with some of country's oldest verities as their bait.

The 90-minute set was big on songs about family, faith and sweet or bittersweet notions about romance. No new ground was broken: Like Pearson, fellow Three Wheelers Steve Dean and Billy Montana are professional Nashville songsmiths whose work is geared to a commercial country market not known for seeking new peaks of individualized expression.

But as the show went on, with songs about strong connective bonds between families, between lovers, and between believers and their faith, it suggested one fairly obvious reason for the rise in commercial country's popularity: At a time of disorienting shifts in the social landscape, from white-collar layoffs to drive-by shootings, people want to be reassured that there remains firm ground to stand on, that the verities still hold.

Pearson opened the evening with a solo set of sentimental songs about homecoming and family ties. For "Family Pride," a song celebrating the arrival of a newborn baby, he called his little niece to sing--which she did with innocent aplomb and not an instant's stage fright.

Pearson's vision of the family was strictly sweet, but the sentimentality was tempered by some good laugh lines in a song that pays tribute to his younger sister: "We rubbed dirty socks in her face and grossed her out--that's how we showed our love to our little sis. . . . She even married a guy from Cleveland; if that ain't love, I don't know what is."

On its own, Pearson's voice was pleasant but not distinctive, gaining more life when he sang in his higher range. That's where his partners came in. When joined by Dean, who hails from Little Rock, Ark., and Montana, who comes from Albany, N.Y., Pearson became the low-end anchor of a rich, beautifully wrought harmony blend.

"Well, they ain't surfers, but they can sing," Pearson noted, and his band mates' supporting efforts made him sound better when it was his turn to take the lead. The lanky, trim-bearded Dean took the mid-range role with a clear, sturdy voice. Montana, who looks a tad like Glenn Frey, was the high-harmonizing tenor.

Pearson is the band's designated picker. A somewhat-contrived sequence found him moving from banjo on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" to fiddle for "The Battle of New Orleans" and to harmonica for a blues-tinged honky-tonk shuffle. The fiddle and harmonica workouts bested the less-than-incendiary banjo tune. When he was called on to complement a song, rather than use it as a showpiece for his versatility, Pearson proved to be an extremely capable lead player on acoustic guitar. Todd Barth, a local player who was sitting in, wound out a couple of nice solos on steel guitar.

All three singers delivered during a ballads segment. Dean sang tenderly on the plaintive "Hearts Aren't Made to Break (They're Made to Love)," a Lee Greenwood hit he co-wrote, and Montana summoned earnest conviction for "No, Sir," in which a man pleads his case to the disapproving father of the woman he intends to marry. Pearson sounded persuasively reverent with a song of religious faith, "The Gentle Healer."

Pearson's wry side surfaced again with "Jana's Dad." He recalled how he got the idea for the song after chatting with a beautiful woman he met in an aerobics class. The song concerns a hulking, good-ol'-boy father who has enough of a mean streak to scare most of the ardor out of his lovely daughter's suitors, ensuring that they'll make no untoward romantic overtures. In a nice, if sentimental, twist at the end, Pearson leaps forward in time and the young swain scared by Jana's 285-pound dad is now a father himself, employing some of the same scare tactics on fellows who date his own daughter.

"It sounded like a good idea for a song to me," Pearson told the audience during his introduction. "So far, I'm the only one in Nashville who thinks so. But I'm getting used to that."

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Pearson's search for a breakthrough hit in country music can be traced back to his boyhood in the Los Angeles County community of Santa Fe Springs.

"On my street, there were seven families from Oklahoma," he recalled during an interview several days before his Crazy Horse show. "Delbert Clyde Martin (one of his neighbors) used to play the guitar on his front porch. His wife was Maxine. She played mandolin, and they sang these great mountain songs. I'd be over there, just mesmerized. That's what really pulled me into country music at a young age."

He took up the guitar at 12, then learned to play the banjo. As a high school senior, he got his first professional gig playing weekends at Knott's Berry Farm. At 21, he moved to Huntington Beach and began playing the local clubs. In 1984, a local hit, "Orange County Cowboy," proved to be the springboard for his jump to Nashville.

Pearson said he got what appeared to be his first break when RCA Records, noting his dark good looks, thought he might have a future as a Spanish-language crooner in the Latin American market. Though his own ethnic background is mainly English, he had studied Spanish in school and was game for the try.

"They had seen me playing around (Nashville) and based on my look and sound, they thought it could be almost a Julio Iglesias thing. He sings here in English, and people seem to like that. They thought they could do a reverse effect in Latin America, with an American singing in Spanish. A guy from Southern California moves to Nashville and gets a record deal in Spanish. We all know the music business doesn't make any sense, but that's crazy."

The odd notion never got its test in the marketplace. Pearson says that he recorded an album but that due to "some political things between my producer and the head of the label," it wasn't released.

Three Wheel Drive came together when Pearson became a staff writer at the same publishing company where Dean worked. In writing songs together, they discovered that their voices meshed well, and they began working up material to sing themselves. Randy Van Warmer was the original third member; Montana, another of their songwriting partners, joined when Van Warmer left about 2 1/2 years ago.

They seemed to be on the right road when they scored a record deal with an independent Nashville label, 16th Avenue Records, but Pearson said the company folded before the group could even record. Warner Bros. scouted the trio and gave it some money to make demos, but no deal resulted.

Now, Pearson is hoping his work as a songwriter will pay off. Van Warmer, Jim Stafford and Barbara Mandrell are among those who have recorded songs he has written, but so far he hasn't landed that career-boosting hit. He has hopes for as-yet unreleased songs he has written for two new artists, Karla Taylor on Curb Records and Chris Mullins on Giant.

Recently, he has been writing with Marty Brown, a performer with a deeply traditional country sound, and Paula Carlson, who scored a series of hits when she was the singer in Highway 101.

"I liken everything to fishing," Pearson said. "You throw your line in the water enough times and you're gonna catch a big one. I'm still fishing, you might say."

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