Hot Rod Walt Richards hustles and rumbles like there’s no bottom to the tank or the glass. Armed with an iconic Gretsch guitar (and often a High Life and/or a healthy helping of Jagermeister), Hot Rod is celebrating two decades at the throttle of his hard-chargin’, flame-resistant outfit, The Psycho Devilles, while eagerly preparing a stylish new Dark Americana project and alter ego in the form of Fenton Sparrow. He’s a master of the stage as well as the garage, where he hand stitches tuck & roll upholstery, and rejuvenates vintage automobiles and motorcycles for collectors and film. Walt’s also an actor (he played Tennessee Two guitarist Luther Perkins in 2013’s Ring of Fire), and by request, modifies beloved Gretsch guitars with his signature “pinstripes”. If there’s such a thing as a Renaissance rockabilly, Hot Rod Walt is it– and perhaps even the archetype. In anticipation of his upcoming solo acoustic show at JBA on Friday, February 25th, I called Walt as his home in Jackson, Georgia to get the skinny on his origins, the vinyl pressing of the Pyscho Devilles’ latest album, Rumble Road, his passion for Gretsch guitars, and a whole heap more!
AI- You and I have never done the full in-depth interview, and by the looks of the internet, you haven’t really done one with anybody. So I’m excited to dig into the background of Hot Rod Walt & The Psycho Devilles! First, tell me about where you grew up, Beemerville, New Jersey, and what got you into playin’ guitar?
HRW- Beemerville, New Jersey is a part of New Jersey nobody knows exists. It’s a right at the foot of the Appalachian Trail and it’s beautiful– nothing but cows and rolling hills and mountains and hunting and fishing and dairy farms! It’s always been 30 years behind the rest of the world! Interesting place– no such thing as really live music or anything like that, but I had friends that played guitar, a cousin that played, and it’s just somethin’ I wanted to do.
Most of the time, if I was sittin’ on the couch with a guitar, people’d look at you like you had three heads! I didn’t come from a musical family at all. Everything was a fight and it wasn’t like a prodigy or something, so I had to fight for every lick! And there was no such thing as internet! I had a songbook, and I took like five lessons from an old lady named Mrs. Beers, which was kind of cool (laughs), but I learned how to do “Row Your Boat” and terrible stuff… I hated it! I told her, “You need to teach me somethin’ cool ’cause I don’t know if I can keep doin’ this!” So she taught me how to play “Wipe Out”!
And that’s what led you down the path?
That was the hook! That’s what got me, and then I was hooked on it!
What did you wanna play? I mean, “Wipe Out” is what she hit you with, but what was on the radio that was sparkin’ your interest the most?
For me, I wanted to play the hardest stuff on the planet– which I was nowhere as near skilled enough to partly play “Row Your Boat”– but I was a huge fan of The Eagles and Skynyrd and Little River Band and stuff from the ’70s. But I didn’t know what Led Zeppelin was or anything like that! I was into The Beach Boys (laughs)! But stuff that a normal kid can’t play and most humans can’t play. I was really stuck, so what I did is since I couldn’t figure out any songs because I don’t have that skill, I started writing songs right away as a little kid. And I had quite a catalog of songs that I wrote right off the bat because the only thing I could do is just make up some stuff! I’ve been doin’ that all along, and now, I got 13 albums out of original music and it’s taken me all over the world!
What got you into the rockabilly groove whole hog? What was the catalyst for that?
I had 45s from my parents when I was a kid so I had that connection, but there’s a band that I would see called The Razorbacks from New Jersey. There were some car shows I would go to, and when I saw what these guys did, I said, “That’s what I wanna do someday!” It was so flamboyant and so wild, it seemed way beyond five guys standing still on stage– it just was so action-packed, it seemed impossible! The Razorbacks, I would see them and I would stare at ’em and I would stare at ’em and I’d just soak it in! And then through the years when I played in all these other bands, alternative style bands like Lit or Stone Temple Pilots, I was the guy on stage with the pompadour and the hollow body guitar! People would walk in, they’d go, “There’s a rockabilly band tonight?” I go, “No… I’m just the guy that looks like this in the band.”
I was doin’ a pinstripe job for a guy, like a rockabilly dude, and he goes, “Hey man, you ever hear of the Reverend Horton Heat? Or Social Distortion?” I was like, “No,” so he gave me a couple CDs to listen to while he left me the car– and I was like, “This is what’s missing in my life!” [This was the] early ’90s, and then I went to the store where I used to buy my “ugly shirts,” as my father called ’em– it was like Ocean Pacific or some store at the mall– and I’d buy these shirts with flames on ’em and whatever, stuff for the stage. They had a little TV playin’ in there, and it was a band from Australia called The Living End. They had upright bass and they were playing super spazzed-out rockabilly, and I was like, “That’s my future, hundred percent!”
My professional music career started with a band, an acoustic duo, called Acoustic Boulevard– and that was in 1990 when I started playin’ shows for real. We had 85 original songs, two albums, no covers. Ever. People would sit down and listen to us play– it was real deal quality stuff. Then my music partner and I each got divorced, we put 85 songs on a shelf, wrote 50 new songs, put electric guitars around our necks, and started doin’ a more rock and alternative thing [called Slick Riddle]. All the bands around us were gettin’ signed in Florida– Seven Mary Three and Sister Hazel and all these bands that were all popular in Florida. We were scheduled to play a 99 X festival and gettin’ played on the radio, all kind of cool stuff happening, three albums– but in the back of my head, I always wanted to just really have a rockabilly band! We were supposed to play this 99 X festival, and all the bands, Butch Walker, we’re lined up, ready to play this huge festival– and Hurricane Hugo came through and closed down the whole thing!
Well, there was a little bit of drama in the band between a guitar player and a bass player, and it folded. Meanwhile, on the side, I had started up The Psycho Devilles, and I started puttin’ together material and players, and I was gettin’ it ready to come out the door. As soon as Slick Riddle folded, Psycho Deville’s just took over and took me everywhere that I ever dreamed of playing with every other band! Back in the Slick Riddle days, I’d be looking for gigs and they’d go, “What kind of music do you do?” And you’d say alternative, but that’s such a broad genre! But if I said rockabilly, they go, “What night do you want?”
You said when you were a kid, you went to a lot of car shows and from what I understand before you got into playing music, you were still a car guy. You talked about doin’ the pinstripe job– how did you get into cars and doing modifications? I wouldn’t call it a day job, that is certainly another passion for you.
Yeah, I always was a car kid– from Hot Wheels up (laughs)! My cousin-in-law, he played guitar and he had a really cool Chevelle. I knew that when I turned 17, I needed to have a cool car. So at 14, what I did when I was a kid, I worked on farms everywhere. I’d throw hay bales and shovel crap and do all that stuff and cut grass and whatever it took to make a buck, work in greenhouses… Well, I took half my life savings– it was $125– and I bought this wrecked and rusted out ’67 Mustang. I drug it home, and I worked on it two and a half years, and the day I turned 17, I had a car I built myself. Now over 200 cars later, I’m still doin’ it!
When I was in high school, I had a band called The Myx. It was fun, it was great! I had my first paying gig in 1984 with that band, but they all went to college and I stayed home. I had to decide, “Am I gonna pursue music or pursue cars?” I learned quick that there was no money in the music business, so I dove in headfirst with the cars.
In ’89, when I moved to Florida, I met a guy and we clicked off real well with the music thing. We started doin’ music, but cars was still my full-time gig. But then when I moved to Georgia in ’06, the economy had crapped out and nobody was spending money on their cars or motorcycles– however, people were spending money at the bar and the music business just took over! And now, since ’06, music has been 96% of my total household income– and it’s been good!
What got you down to Florida?
Well, it was a new frontier. I bought three acres with a brand new built-to-my-specifications 2,800 square foot house for $64,000. And in New Jersey, you can’t buy a swamp with a rock in the middle for a hundred grand! So for a kid– I was only 21 maybe? And I owned a freakin’ mansion!
And this was all you workin’ on cars? This was all custom car work?
Yep! I painted, did body work, and all that stuff, and then when I moved to Florida, I started doin’ upholstery work because I felt like the chemicals were makin’ me sick. So I started doin’ upholstery and then I started doing pinstriping and motorcycle seats because the chopper craze came out and there was a chopper shop on every corner in Florida. I got pretty heavy into that. When I started doin’ the motorcycle thing, heavy-duty, I’d go to Daytona Bike Week. I walk into a place called The Bank & Blues on Main Street, and lo and behold, who’s there on stage every night of the week for 10 days? The Razorbacks!
(Laughs) New Jersey’s finest rockabilly!
It came full circle! So then I’m even more steeped in the rockabilly thing and wantin’ to do it! Eventually, I’m on stage with ’em playin’! Pretty neat! A lot of these heroes, I got to share the stage with– like Reverend Horton Heat. I got to share the stage with him many, many times. He’s come up on me and played and I’ve gone up on him and played. It’s pretty interesting how this has come around. It makes me wish I would’ve just started the rockabilly thing sooner! It’s hard– you can’t sell any music these days. Nobody buys music. When I had three albums online on iTunes or whatever, I was makin’ between $500 and $800 a month off of downloads. Now, I have ten albums on there and I make $50! People don’t buy anymore, they stream, and streaming is 0.001 cents (laughs)!
You said something that I thought was extremely profound– I think it was in a promo video for Gretsch– you said, “People listen with their eyes.” Everything about Hot Rod Walt is custom built from head to toe– the hat, the haircut, the clothes, the cars, the guitars. I want to break all of that down. Let’s start with the guitars. You’re a Gretsch man, endorsed by Gretsch– how did you get hooked up and become such a fan of that brand of guitar?
Most rockabilly guitar players play a Gretsch guitar– it’s that or a Telecaster, but most of ’em play a big hollowbody Gretsch. They’re a flamboyant, huge, beautiful, twangy guitar out of the box. They just come that way and they have since– well, they’ve been around for 135 years– but since the mid-’50s when they came out with that 6120, the big orange guitar that Eddie Cochran and those type rockabilly guys played. Any time I saw a rockabilly band, I’d be like, “Man, I gotta have a Gretsch guitar!” But they’re not cheap! They’re an expensive guitar, it’s a big commitment, and I didn’t think I’d ever own one because coming up with $2000, $3,000, or more for a guitar just didn’t make sense to me.
When I fired up this rockabilly thing, The Psycho Devilles, I had an old Silvertone and a crappy make-believe Gretsch guitar, a Jay Turser, and I figured, “I just need to make this happen.” A friend of mine worked at Guitar Center and he said, “You know, they got this deal where you get this credit card and you can buy a guitar and pay it off no interest if you get it paid off in a year.” So I went down to Fort Lauderdale and I bought a big orange 6120 and a Fender amp and paid it off in a year, no interest. And then I bought another one. Then I bought another one (laughs)!
I would look at a Vintage Guitar magazine, and there was a full-page ad that Gretsch was comin’ out with a Reverend Horton Heat signature guitar. I said, “That’s for me!” But it was expensive! Very, very, very expensive– it was $4,000! I put my order in– they weren’t even manufactured yet! I ordered it before they were even out, and I got one of the first six. It took a long time for it to show up!
I moved to Georgia, and I saw an ad somewhere that Fred Gretsch was gonna be at the [Georgia] Music Hall of Fame down in Macon. I was like “I wanna meet Fred Gretsch!” There was gonna be a big display of guitars and all that stuff. I go down there and I bring this little Western Flyer wagon with me to pull around this event. I brought some guitars with me and I brought CDs and all kinds of stuff with me– ’cause I’m new here and who knows who I’m gonna meet! I meet Fred Gretsch and he signs my guitar and I give him some CDs and it was a nice meeting. And then a couple months later, I get a phone call from Fred Gretsch and he wants to know if I’d be interested in playing his grandson’s birthday at their chicken farm in north Georgia! I’m like, “Yes!” I played two or three parties up there on their front porch– on this chicken farm– and then I played a Christmas party down there in Savannah for Gretsch.
Fast forward a few years, I’m on tour, and I’m gonna be in Arizona. That’s where the Gretsch rep is– the artist representative guy. We broke down between Austin and El Paso and had to get towed a hundred miles. Next morning, we get up, get the van fixed by a miracle, and we drove straight through to Phoenix to make our show that night. Greeting us at the door of this club was Joe Carducci, the Gretsch artist representative! He bought us beers, stayed for the show, and then he says, “Hey, what are you guys doin’ tomorrow?” I said, “We’re goin’ to San Diego.” He goes, “Why don’t you come by the office tomorrow morning, it’s in Scottsdale, and it’s the world headquarters of Fender guitars.” Gretsch is under the Fender umbrella.
We show up there, it’s like Fort Knox, like eye scan— it’s crazy! We go into [Joe’s] office, he had a small office, and on one wall is all Gretsch guitars hanging up on hooks, and on the other wall is all 8×10 framed photographs of Gretsch artists. There’s Chet Atkins and Brian Setzer and Bo Didley and Bono and Billy Gibbons and all these pictures, all these Gretsch artists… [Joe] runs his hand against the wall, like, “These are all the people that are important to Gretsch guitars… Including that guy.” And he points to my picture on the wall next to Chet Atkins! So that’s when my endorsement began! Mind-blowing! We finish our tour and I’m like, “Man, I could just retire now! I’m good. This is the best!”
Then fast forward a couple more years, and I’m in Texas– it’s Reverend Horton Heat and Hank III, couple other bands. I’m not on the bill, but I went because I wanted to take my wife to Austin and let her see what the city’s like. I brought stripin’ gear, and they were gonna give away a Reverend Horton Heat signature guitar that night. I said to the Gretsch guy, “Hey, why don’t you let me stripe that guitar before you put it out there?” I striped it up, had an audience around me, brought it on stage– this huge stage– and they raffled off the guitar with my pinstripin’ on it. Two months later, “Hey, Walt! I’m gonna send you ten guitars. Can you pinstripe ’em and send ’em right back to me? Then a couple months later, “Hey, I’m gonna send you six more guitars.” And then I get a phone call, “Hey, I’ve got a lot of guitars, I’ve got an idea, and instead of me shipping ’em to you, I want you to come out here to California and do it.”
What I pinstriped were dusty box guitars. Let’s say there’s a model that’s not selling, it’s fizzled out, and there’s 30 guitars of that model left and they need to open that slot, get rid of those guitars so they can maybe bring in another idea, another line. They’d have me come and I’d stripe 30 of this particular model and 50 of this model and whatever. And they would sell immediately! Joe would call it “added value”. He’d put it out there, “Hey, we got this 5120 in black with a Bigsby, and they’re pinstriped by Hot Rod Walt, a guy from Atlanta, from The Psycho Devilles,” and they would sell right now! He kept doin’ that and he’d open up a new slot so they could put a new line in that slot.
I would fly out there on a Sunday, arrive at 5 o’clock at night. I’d get my car and my hotel, and I’d be in the factory at 5:30 in the morning and I would pinstripe ’til 5:30 at night. I’d do that all week then they’d fly me back home. I’d play my gigs, I’d come home, be home at four in the morning, and I’d be on that plane at 8am back to California and do it again, do it again, do it again… I striped 500 guitars– my own signature, for real Gretsch guitars. It’s pretty neat when you Google Hot Rod Walt and Gretsch, you’ll see my guitars pop up all over the world!
Speakin’ of all over the world, I saw a picture on your social media of your family of Gretsch guitars. You mentioned in that post that you have one that you keep in Belgium?
When you fly and you’re carryin’ guitars and merch and all that kind of stuff, it’s cumbersome. I brought a lot of guitars over there, but I decided to leave that one so it’s always there when I show up! I also have an upright bass there and all the amps– bass amp, guitar amp, merch, everything. I just keep it there, that way, when we show up, we can just show up with our luggage and get in our and go!
Now, let’s talk about the clothes! This is not a gimmick for you– this is a lifestyle. When you come to play, you come dressed to the nines every time. You’ve got the cuff links and the monograms on the sleeves– who does your clothes for you?
Most of my clothes, I make myself, or I take a Goodwill suit and I’ll make it into a show suit– sew the Western patterns onto the lapels. I’ll basically get out my Bedazzler and bedazzle all my suits and pants and appliques! I do upholstery, so I can sew up anything! I got a lot of custom suits– a lot– that I just make myself. I’ve always been a big believer that– like we were talkin’ about– people listen with their eyes. Some people are pretty sure that the music will speak for itself. Sometimes that works, but a lot of times, it just comes across as lazy. Three guys sittin’ down or standin’ there in street clothes, to me, isn’t interesting.
I grew up in an era where The Monkees and everybody dressed, you know what I mean? Everybody looked like a musician when they walked in the room, and when they went on stage, they all matched, they looked like they were a band. I liked that! To me, a guy wearin’ a hoodie on stage and shorts and flip flops– people aren’t gonna take any pictures of that guy. But when you’re dressed properly and you’re playin’ good-lookin’ gear, people are compelled to take a picture! Even if they’re sure they would never do it– ’cause a lot of people would never wear a leopard suit or a Nudie suit! But when you go and you Google me, you’re gonna see a million pictures of me dressed up, playin’ a Gretsch guitar (laughs), and lightin’ the bass on fire!
Let’s talk about that part. This year, 2022 marks 20 years for The Psycho Devilles. Has this been the same guys from the beginning or are you the glue that has held the whole thing together from its instigation?
It was designed to be Hot Rod Walt and The Psycho Devilles. I’ve always been the guy. But the current lineup, my drummer’s [Steve “Burnout” Barnett] been with me for 16 years. This bass player’s [Buford T Ogletree] been with me over 10, so that’s a pretty good run! Might be 12 almost now! Having those same guys for that period of time is pretty impressive! Yeah, 20 years this year… It’s weird to be that guy that I can actually say that! And it hasn’t been 20 years like, “Oh, we played and we took two years off, and then we whatever…” It’s been 20 years without a month off! It’s been a lot of work (laughs)!
You were talkin’ about the streaming music earlier. I understand it– that’s how things are now– but I don’t necessarily… I mean, it’s convenient for me to be out in the backyard pushin’ my daughter on the swing and have music playin’ from my phone, but when we’re inside, we put a record on the turntable is what we do. You’ve got Rumble Road, your last full-length being pressed on vinyl. Is this the first time that you’ve had an album pressed on vinyl and what’s the timeline looking for that?
Actually about six years ago or seven years ago, I put out a 45.
I remember that! But this will be the first full-length?
Yeah. It’s expensive! And it’s only until these last couple years that people actually, for whatever reason– guess ’cause it’s cool or whatever– want to buy records. They don’t care about a CD, but they will buy an album. It’s Devils Brew Productions. [Robert Pilson], he’s been doin’ this for bands where he sticks his neck out and will put it on vinyl, pick an album and do a full production and limited run. He really gets into building it, putting together the artwork and choosing color vinyls, and promoting it. This one here should be out in May, I guess. They’re really behind in production right now because it’s wildly popular to do it. The pressing plants are pretty busy!
We just ran an interview with Cash Carter from Kindercore in Athens, and he laid out the whole thing that’s happening right now with different plants and why things are taking long, why things are gonna continue to take long. He really gets into the nuts and bolts of the whole industry. He’s got a band called Blunt Bangs, which is how the interview started, but he’s one of the owners at Kindercore, and it was a really enlightening part of the conversation.
I think Jack White is actually the one that somehow sparked off this latest craze over these past eight or whatever years with the vinyl thing. He did some interesting stuff and I think it made everybody wanna do it. I’m not sure half these people even have record players that buy ’em!
Well, that’s seen a big resurgence too– the turntable and the hybrid technology! But that’s still very exciting that you’re havin’ Rumble Road put out on vinyl. It seems like this guy has the same sort of attention to detail and care that you put into all the stuff that you do, so it seems like a natural fit.
It is a good marriage because he goes all the way. He’s not afraid to spend some money and do it right. And he likes the attention to detail. Make it cool, make it wild, not just blow out the cheapest way possible, but let’s make it so you can get it in three different color vinyls! It’s gonna be cool. It’s gonna be a neat thing to have ’cause when you grow up on that stuff, it’s hard to imagine that you’re ever gonna actually have your music on that format. I’m excited about it– and hopefully, they’ll sell!
You are keen to get back into the studio to record a new Psycho Devilles album? Did I see that I see that you’re champin’ it a bit to get that goin’ on?
Yeah. I actually just had my engineer over here the other day, and I’m ready to go. The songs I have for this record… A lot of my records, they’re not just rockabilly. They got a little bit of every style on there, really. This one doesn’t have a lot of rockin’ songs on it. It’s only gonna have like maybe four or five songs that are Psycho Deville-y. A lot of this stuff is almost folky or… I don’t know what you’d even call it? Americana? Dark Americana, maybe? Maybe I’ll put out a Psycho Devilles EP with those songs, and then do a solo album, so to speak, with the rest of it. I’m kinda startin’ up a side project, like a ’40s-style, dark Americana project with jazzy guitar, fiddle, upright bass, no drums. I don’t know what you’d call it, but ’40s style. All about the clothes (laughs)!
And imagery! In fact, I just ordered a Gretsch New Yorker, an old archtop-style, single pickup guitar for it. It’s gonna be called Fenton Sparrow. I’ve been going under that guise here and there for almost 20 years.
And that’s like your Luke The Drifter character?
Yep! I’m gonna bring that out here soon. I just bought a handmade upright bass. It was made by an 80-year-old guy– pretty neat, but very vintage-looking. I’m gonna mess around with that a little bit. I got some stuff in the works. I just gotta make it happen!
Let’s talk just a little bit about the show coming up on the 25th at JBA– Hot Rod Walt solo acoustic. As you just mentioned, you do different things outside the rockabilly that’s more in the Americana vein. I know you’re a big old-school honky tonk fan as well. What do you get to do when it’s just you and an acoustic Gretsch on stage that you don’t get to do when it’s you and the band?
Well, I’m a storyteller. If I have the right crowd– people that actually care, people that aren’t just there for the meat market or to play pool or run their mouth– when I have a captive audience, I like to tell the story behind the song. That reels the people in to pay more attention, and then they have a whole other appreciation for the music and the songwriting when they know that it’s not just some made-up story– that it actually has meaning. I get to strip things down. I start playin’ a song and I stop in the middle and I explain the next verse. A lot of it’s comedy, but a lot of it’s very serious as well. I’m trying to reel the people in and make them part of the event, part of the show, part of the story.
It’s like a whole other world for me. Instead of havin’ a wall of sound and a freight train comin’ at you, it’s stripped back. I can make it fun and make it a party, but I can also, the next song, strip it down to nothing or sing when I’m hardly ever even playin’ my guitar through the whole song. It’s neat for me. That’s gonna be a duo gig, actually, at JBA. I’m not quite sure who’s playing with me yet, but it could just be Buford on the upright bass or it could be a friend of mine on a fiddle. I’ve got a couple really good guitar pickers. This one guy, Riley Williams, plays with me a lot. He can take my music to a whole other place like a rockabilly song has become some whole other genre of the way he plays. And this guy’s got one hand! He’s the best guitar player I know!
He’s got one hand, and he’s the best guitar player you know?
One hand. I’m not kidding! He has his left hand, his fingerboard hand, but his strumming hand is just a nub, it’s gone. He doesn’t have an apparatus or anything like that, it’s just a nub– but he doesn’t miss one note and shreds! Incredible! He’s super talented, and if he’s in town, hopefully, he’ll be able to play with me. But that’s all the things I get to do. I get to mix it up with different styles and whatever fits the crowd. If they don’t like me, then I’ll play stuff to make ’em mad (laughs)!