Big House Comes From a Different Country


Bakersfield isn’t much to look at. An arid, dusty, smallish place, it seems too rural to be California yet too desiccated to be a Southern town. What it really feels like is a large inland truck stop.

But it’s one of the most celebrated places in the history of country music: From Bakersfield rose Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, the Maddox family--bona fide county royalty.

Now from those same streets comes a hot new act called Big House, whose debut album was released last week (the first single, “Cold Outside,” already is at No. 30 on Billboard’s country chart). The band plays the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana tonight.


But its sound seems to owe little to those who put Bakersfield on the map.

“That’s because I don’t want to sound like Merle, and I don’t want to sound like Buck,” Big House front man Monty Byrom explained on the phone recently. “One of the hardest things about this record was to put out a bunch of songs that we thought sounded different from everyone else. That’s the hardest thing for anyone, to find your own sound and niche.”

Thankfully, Big House also sounds nothing like the blandly commercial country product being pumped out of Nashville these days. Instead, one hears echoes of the acoustic Rolling Stones, “American Beauty”-era Grateful Dead, mid-period Steve Miller and early Eagles. Of course, Byrom groaned at the suggestion:

“It’s not that I don’t like the analogy, but what happens is that a lot of people out there think we’re not really country. But what most people consider country, I don’t consider country. What’s considered country today, when I hear something with a big gated snare drum and 16 background vocalists and 14 guitars . . . well, you know, I thought country was a little bit simpler than that, and that’s what I grew up with.

“We’ve got a couple acoustic guitars, sometimes one of us straps on an electric guitar, and we just make music.”

The members of Big House--Byrom on lead vocals and guitar; David Neuhauser on guitars, keyboards and vocals; Chuck Seaton on guitars and vocals; Sonny California on harp, percussion and vocals; Ron Mitchell on bass and vocals; and Tanner Byrom on drums and vocals--had played for years in a variety of bands around Bakersfield before joining forces on New Year’s Eve 1995.


The group recorded a demo and almost immediately was signed by MCA Nashville.

“It’s amazing,” Byrom said. “We did our first gig in Nashville and now a year-and-a-half later we have our own billboard on Music Row. That’s not too bad. You’ve got to be pretty happy with that.


“And every day, it seems like I read another positive review, another piece of praise, another letter from someone saying, ‘Man, I need this in my life.’ I have a hard time trying not to sound like I’m bragging but it’s a little overwhelming. I’m still used to hearing my mother saying, ‘How come you can’t pay your rent this month?’ ”

The band calls itself Big House because of the many influences that go into its music. Byrom listed Hank Williams, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs and Bad Company, among others. And even though the group has taken great pains to avoid sounding like Owens or Haggard, Byrom said he loves them both.

“Buck is probably one of our biggest fans,” he said. “In fact, I was just with Buck, singing at his club back home last Friday till 1 in the morning. Buck’s doing real good. He’s had quite a few setbacks with his health in the last couple of years but he’s doing fine now. After he had throat cancer, he couldn’t even speak, but he could still sing, and he’s singing better now than he has in years. He’ll go down singing, and that’s the truth.”


Earlier this year, Big House toured with Haggard, who moved to Northern California years ago.

“The first night we played with Merle, he came back to our dressing room and said, ‘So you boys are from Bakersfield? There still any good clubs to play there?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Merle.’

“There still is a great club scene there. We’ve got like a little Bourbon Street downtown. There’s 10 or 15 clubs going at any time where you can go build up a following and make a living playing your own music. You don’t have to do that Holiday Inn thing where you have to play everyone else’s stuff.”


* Big House plays tonight at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow, Santa Ana. 8 p.m. (714) 549-1512.