VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Ventura Theatre Takes Rock Back to Its Roots : Steve Earle and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy play music that's tinged with a bluesy, country feel.

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Roots rock is a catchall term that writers stuck for new adjectives invented to describe any combination of basic American music--be it country, blues, folk, rock 'n' roll or whatever it is they do in Louisiana. Whatever you call it, this is a good week for stuff like that at the Ventura Theatre.

Tonight, it's those local swingers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, tearing it up for the swing dancers, all the while looking like guys in the background of a '40s movie. BBVD will be sharing the stage with Lee Rocker, formerly of the Stray Cats, and still living up to his surname. Rocker, with a new group called Big Blue, has a memorable guitarist in Mike Eldred. The group performs more in a bluesy than rockabilly style. Anyone who showed up on time to the George Thorogood show not long ago will remember Rocker's band.

But the guy getting his mug in the paper this week is twangy country rocker Steve Earle, who hasn't drawled across the big stage since 1990, but will make his return on Sunday. After a 1986 debut with "Guitar Town," Earle made plenty of albums and toured incessantly (he's big in Canada and Australia). Then he was arrested and convicted on a drug charge and spent 60 days in jail. Last year he was back with "Train a Comin'," a kinder, gentler album with fewer decibels than his previous efforts.

"It's a record I always wanted to make," said Earle. "I just got out of jail and hadn't made an album for five years, and some of it was songs that had survived even before 'Guitar Town,' and some other songs that just seemed to hold up."

There's no question about his songwriting skills, which feature tales of woe and wow as seen by a Texan who knows about cars, girls and hard times. But his music is not easy to categorize; even his record company, MCA, had some trouble. So Earle went ahead and started his own production company, E-Squared.

"My first album, 'Guitar Town,' had two hit country singles on it. Then on my second album, country radio didn't pick up on it because it was too far to the left, and the third album was marketed as a rock record by the label," Earle said. "I don't ever want to be put in that position again, so with E-Squared, I can pretty much do what I want."

Earle, while perhaps not always the Voice of Responsibility, has now reached an age, he said, when he's been around long enough to know what he has to do to stay around even longer.

"The road is like anything else, if you run wide open, you'll burn out. The road is as crazy as you make it, but it's a lot different now that I'm 40 as opposed to when I was 30 or in my 20s," he said. "Now, my kids are teenagers, and I gotta be home. My son likes my stuff, but Nirvana, too. We like a lot of the same stuff, but he also listens to Bob Dylan."

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Last Wednesday, his "Train" album got nominated for a Grammy in the best contemporary folk album category and he appeared on "The Tonight Show." It was during a break from rehearsals at NBC that he conducted this phone interview. So with another Grammy nomination under his belt, was he getting the rock-star treatment?

"Well, I've got a tray of cheese and stuff in my dressing room, and I just bought a Dr. Pepper out of the machine," he reported. "But what drives me as an artist are songs. I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't a songwriter. I'll have a new one out in spring, 'I Feel Alright,' and I'm also working with a hot new band called the Viceroys. All in all, this isn't a bad way to make a living."

Opening for Earle will be Laura Tyler & the Usual Suspects. Call 648-1888 to find out more about the 8 p.m. show on Sunday that will set you back $16.50.

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In the Bad News Department: The Buds' guitarist, Chris Pinnick, suffered a massive heart attack on New Year's Eve and is currently at UCLA, awaiting a heart transplant.

The Buds, in addition to Pinnick, featured Buddy Sklar on bass and Chet McCracken on drums. Sklar was with the Leaves, Hook and the Spencer Davis Group while McCracken was one of the Doobie Brothers. Pinnick also was in a zillion bands, but most notably, Chicago.

The Buds played around L.A. and packed the Hungry Hunter in Thousand Oaks every weekend. The band recorded a CD at the venue in December.

In a previous interview, Sklar described his first encounter with Pinnick before recruiting him into the Spencer Davis Group: "One day in 1970, I was leaving the park in Reseda when I heard some incredible guitar playing. It was the greatest guitar playing I had ever heard in my life; I mean, this guy was incredible. So I knocked on the door and his mom said, 'I know, I've been telling the kid to shut up.' I asked Chris to join the band. That guy's beyond the beyond."

Donations can be made to The Chris Pinnick Trust in care of his attorney: David Geren ("Attention: Chet McCracken), 15760 Ventura Blvd., Suite 2020, Encino, CA 91436.

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