The Shootouts punch through the target with Bullseye, a sweet sophomore effort featuring vintage-tooled country twang that continues what the Akron, Ohio outfit began with 2019’s Quick Draw. Enlisting the legendary Chuck Mead (BR5-49) to oversee the Nashville sessions in the early quarantine of 2020, Bullseye is driven by classic country style, razor-sharp pedal steel, and sparkling Western guitar. Look for Bullseye on April 30th across all your favorite digital platforms or pre-order CDs or vinyl directly from the band!
AI- As I understand it, you were all set to begin the recording process for the album in March of last year. And then it would seem that planet earth had other plans…
RH- (Laughs) That is a great way of putting that!
Tell me about that time and what it took to get this record made.
Obviously, a lot of folks know that Nashville got hit by a pretty devastating tornado. I think it was like the very end of February last year. We weren’t sure if we would still be heading to Nashville or not. We talked to our producer, Chuck Mead and he said, “Nope, come on down!” Even though he had damage and his whole street looked like a war zone, he said, “No, let’s still do it!” We did a short run of tour dates and we ended up in Nashville on March 8th to start the record. Literally, that whole week was when things really took a turn for the worst with the pandemic. We’re all watching shows go away, events go away, all of our work and livelihood be canceled and the states getting shut down– and here we were trying to make this record! By the time we finished it on March 17 and drove back to Ohio where we’re from, the whole world had changed, literally, in that seven-day period while we were recording.
Did you have any idea what you were gonna do at that point? You got an album in the can, shows are canceled… I’ve spoken to a lot of artists that have been in similar positions and I think there’s still a lot of shock from that time period that’s enduring.
Yeah, absolutely! We didn’t really know what to expect. All of a sudden, our whole plan for the rest of 2020 and into 2021 just went out the window! So here we were driving home with basically a finished record and not really knowing what we were gonna do with it. The original plan was to try to release it last fall. And we just said, “Okay, well, now there’s really no hurry, right? We’ll take our time. We’ll get it sorted out.” It didn’t take long for people to figure out that the pandemic was gonna take a while. Things were setting in and it was gonna be a long-term thing here. So we said, “Okay, let’s take our time. Let’s do it right.”
We ended up doing probably half a day’s worth of overdubs in a fantastic studio in Kent, Ohio. And that was it! We sent it back down to Chuck and they mixed it in Nashville. We kind of worked on the mixes long distance over the internet and the phone and checkin’ mixes and sending lists of changes and such. It was an interesting way of working, but we still were able to use that time wisely. We figured, “Let’s get it done by fall, and then we can start puttin’ together a plan and seein’ what happens.” We didn’t want to sit on the record too long, of course, but [we were] excited that we got it finished. We said we wanted to put it out before summer so that if there was any chance that we’d be able to play live, that we would be able to support the record.
Let’s talk about Chuck Mead. Anybody playin’ any kind of hillbilly or vintage-inspired country music in the last 30 years knows Chuck, has either been influenced by BR5-49, or introduced to other artists through them. How did you and The Shootouts become involved with Chuck Mead?
Well, I have a radio show myself, actually, every Sunday morning on a station out of the Akron, Canton, Youngstown area of Ohio. It’s focused on nothing but Americana music. So I had Jason Ringenberg, Jim Lauderdale, and Chuck Mead in for an interview while they were touring together and they did a little guitar pull. I gave them each a copy of the [first] record– and Chuck was really into it! I ran into him in Nashville about a month later, and I said, “What’d you think?” He just loved the record, and I said, “Any chance you’d want to produce our next one?” And he said, “Yeah, I think I would!” And that was it!
We stayed in touch. We sent him demos and stuff and just basically showed up in Nashville with the list of songs that he had already made himself familiar with. We showed him where we were with the arrangements and maybe he would make a change, maybe he wouldn’t. We have some songs we toyed with a little bit more than others, of course. He was a lot of fun to work with, man. I mean, we were certainly influenced and inspired by BR5-49. Really one of the bands that we idolize as The Shootouts, and I’m sure folks could hear that in our sound, in our look, and our image and everything. So to get to work with Chuck really was an exciting thing for us.
And he’s just such a great guy! He was down to earth. He knew when to take you to task, he knew when to tell you a dirty joke, he knew when to laugh, and he was just so enthusiastic about the whole project! So even though we were going through a very weird time– and it was weird for him as well, he was watching all sorts of tours and work get canceled and just had a bunch of damage to his house– despite all that, he gave it his all. And that inspired us to give our all as well.
Al Moss is back on the pedal steel and also featured very prominently as a songwriter on the album. Is he like the unofficial official Shootout?
(Laughs) That’s exactly right! Al is just a total gentleman, and we’ve been playing with him now pretty much since the band started. He’s a little older than the rest of the band, and he just said like, “Look, I’m happy just being a sideman. That’s all I want to do.” And he’s just so good at it! He’s an amazing songwriter and it’s a great outlet for him. It certainly is a learning tool for us to have somebody that knows the genre so well. This is a guy who really has studied country music for many, many years. With our last record, Quick Draw, he wrote a song that he literally just had sitting around for probably close to 30 years and it had never been recorded!
He played it for us and we’d loved it and asked if we could cut it and that ended up being our first single off that record, “Cleaning House”. He’s really been a huge asset and friend of the band, and we’ve learned so much from him. Even having his voice as a songwriter on the record is really important to us. We’re gonna keep workin’ with him as long as we can.
Bullseye marks the second release for The Shootouts as an entity, but this isn’t anywhere near your first rodeo, so to speak. You’ve been writing and performing for quite a few years in what I would call an Americana variety. Do you feel like a different artist when you’re outside of The Shootouts?
You know what? To be honest with you, I feel like the truest version of myself as a performer and songwriter and entertainer when I’m with The Shootouts. I grew up with country music coming at me from all angles. My dad had a large record collection, and my mom was listening to country radio back when you could still hear The Mavericks and George Strait and Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart all on regular country radio. And then my grandpa was a big country music fan as well. All of that stuff I grew up with, and then a lot of the music that I made before The Shootouts, I would keep country music at a bit of an arm’s length. I would dabble, or there would certainly be a little aspect of twang in what I would do here and there, but I was still very much into more of like the pop rock, Americana vein.
When I started The Shootouts, when I met Brian Poston, and when we started the band, it was meant to be a side project. And that was it. We just meant to go out and have some fun playing the music that we love. That’s how we bonded was over this love of real country music. We played our very first show in October of 2015– and it felt like I got hit with the electric chair! It was immediate to me that this is what I really was meant to be doing. And honestly, I haven’t looked back! I haven’t really done much at all under my own name unless it’s attached to The Shootouts, and I don’t plan on ever going back! And that music I made, I still have a very fond memory of all that stuff, and I still enjoy that music that I made, but I think I finally came full circle and found my way back home.
Do you approach writing a country song differently than you did your previous work?
Yeah, I would say so. I think with country songs, there’s certainly a level of things that make a country song, certain aspects of the genre that are important to songwriting. Very much story songs. A lot of the time the lyrics are more linear. Whereas when you are writing, say a pop rock song or something that’s a little bit more outside of a traditional genre like that, you can be a little more abstract. The lyrics can be a slight bit more like abstract poetry or things like that. You don’t have to necessarily do some of the things that you would do as a country songwriter. So yeah, there’s definitely a different approach to it.
There’s such a longstanding history of trying to tell a story with your words in a different way with country music than you would with pop rock music. It was definitely a little bit of a learning curve. There were certainly songs that I had that had been around for a while in my little arsenal that fit The Shootouts perfectly. There was a song called “Lonely Never Lets Me Down” that I wrote years ago. I tried to record it on two different records and it never stuck. And it just went into the vault. Finally, when we started The Shootouts, I said, “I have this song, I think it might work for us.” We played it and it immediately fit! I thought, “Ah, finally! Okay, that’s where the song was meant to go!” If anything, it was an indication that that’s really where my heart was all along. I was definitely writing those types of songs, but I never felt they fit with what I was doing before.
I wanna go back to before you went into the studio for Bullseye. Late last winter, The Shootouts released a couple of tracks. You did Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” and you did a version of a Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. I just found those in the course of doing research for this interview. I think they’re both amazing– particularly, the Whitney Houston because my daughter absolutely loves that song. She screams it at the top of her lungs almost daily. I had to go buy her the vinyl, had to track one of those down on Discogs! She loves that song, so I’m gonna play that for her when I get home tonight. What was behind that decision and those particular choices?
We just wanted to celebrate two things. We were lucky enough to be nominated for Honky Tonk Group of the Year at the Ameripolitan Awards that Dale Watson had last winter. We wanted to celebrate that, and we wanted to show people that we weren’t just a one trick pony, that we could take something like an ELO classic or a Whitney Houston classic and make them into country songs. I’m a firm believer that a good song is a good song, and if the bones are sturdy, there’s a very good chance you can dress it up a little differently and still make a great song out of it.
We had talked for a while about finding some songs that were outside of the country genre that might make good country songs. I’m a huge ELO fan, I have been for years since I was a kid, and I’ve always loved that song. It really wasn’t even on the list of songs we were looking at and one night at practice, I was like, “All right, follow me! Let’s try this!” (Laughs) And it just stuck! As far as the Whitney Houston one goes, Brian and I, our guitarist, I think we were driving to Chicago just the two of us, and we were flippin’ through songs just tryin’ to come up with some ideas. That one came on, and I said, “Hear me out… If we strip this of everything that you hear in all of its ’80s glory and make it sound like a 1960s or late ’50s countrypolitan type of tune, something that Ray Price or Patsy Cline might’ve done, what would it sound like?” Brian is the one who arranged that actually. We went to Nashville as we were passing through one time. We cut both of those songs on the same day with Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson producing those.
That Whitney cover though, to me, I could totally have heard Crystal Gayle or Barbara Mandrell doin’ that in the very early ’80s with that arrangement. I thought that turned out wonderful! Tell me about the scene there in Akron, where you guys are based and performing. I talk to people on the West Coast, like in Los Angeles, doin’ country music type stuff, alt-country type stuff, and the scene there, the community is very large, but they don’t have as many arenas to perform in. There’s a lot of clubs that are not country clubs, but they all have a country night and that’s where they go and play. What’s it like there in Akron, in the Youngstown area where you’re at?
It’s funny, we certainly have been traveling and touring quite a bit, and 2020 was meant to be probably our biggest touring year yet. We were gonna be in California and Iowa and St. Louis and Chicago and all over the place. Every bit of that got canceled! So this summer, we’re largely stayin’ close to home with some regional stuff hoping that we can get back out further and further. But the one thing that I really like about our area here in Northeastern Ohio is that Rust Belt work ethic– and there are a lot of great bands in this area!
The other thing that I find really interesting is that when you talk about a town– Nashville, for example, or you could pick any town, Louisville, Kentucky, or Cincinnati or whatever– you’ve got one town, you’ve got one city and you’ve got that scene. Well, here in Northeastern Ohio, you’ve got three smaller towns that are still pretty big in their own right– Akron, Canton, and Youngstown– and then you’ve got Cleveland and all of these are only about 30 minutes from each other. And Pittsburgh’s really not that much farther past Youngstown. So what ends up happening is you’ve got this big super scene! Because all the Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Cleveland bands, they all know each other, they all work together, they all play the same venues because it’s all in the same neck of the woods. The thing that’s really been fun for us as the type of band that we are is we’re a country band, but we’re not the type of country bands that you would see at like your typical country bar nowadays.
We’re not playing bro country. We’re not playing anything that really sounds like stuff that’s on country radio nowadays. We’ve been able to go places that other country bands really probably couldn’t! We’ve played punk clubs and we literally have done nothing different! We play the exact same set, we dress the same, and it goes over like gangbusters. We’ve done a lot of festival stuff. We’ve really taken The Shootouts in a lot of places that you wouldn’t expect to see a country band, and it tends to work really well. The thing that’s been interesting for me and for all the band, we all get a kick out of it, is people come up to us after a show, and they’ll say, “You know, man, I don’t like country music, but I love what you do!” And we just have to laugh because we consider ourselves very country, very real country, very traditional country! I think that there’s a lot of people out there that when they think of country, they think of what is on country radio today. And they might not even know that they like country music! A good friend of mine, he said, “My mom, she hates country music.” And I said, “Oh, okay, well, that’s fair, I guess. “What’s her favorite band?” And he said, “The Eagles.”
So I think that people don’t even necessarily know what they like if you really have to put it into a genre sometimes. We’ve turned a lot of people, man. Even Emily, my long backup singer, one of my best friends, we’ve been singing together now for 17 years going on 18 soon, and her mom was not a country music fan. But I’ll be damned if we weren’t able to turn her! That’s kind of our mission is just to go out there and inform people about what country music really is and what it stands for. There’s nothing wrong with what’s being played on country radio… Well, that’s a different topic, different conversation…
Entirely, yes! But that’s fine. That music has its place it has a certain feel and it has a place and that’s fine. It’s just not what we do. I think that we’ve been able to be a little nimble with what we do because of the type of country music that we make. And we make no bones about it! We are out there carrying the torch for traditional country music.