The Austin, Texas-based Band of Heathens is a feisty group of musical buddies with three vocalists/songwriters, an unflinching love for the road, and the good fortune to have their fourth album, "One Foot in the Ether," hit No. 1 on the Americana Music Association's playlist in late October, just four weeks after its release.
The five Heathens also received a significant nod of acknowledgment in their hometown this year, when they were invited to tape a performance for "Austin City Limits," the longest-running musical showcase on television. Airing last week on OETA, the episode also included a performance by Elvis Costello, and is available online through www.pbs.org.
"It was a total gas getting to do 'Austin City Limits,'" said Ed Jurdi, one of the Heathens' songwriters, who also plays guitar, harmonica and keyboards. "We got to see a final cut of our appearance, and it's really pretty cool. When you see it up on a TV, with the Austin skyline at night in the background, and you think, 'Oh, that's me standing in front of that iconic image,' it's a trippy thing to see, and a very cool thing to be a part of."
TWICE IN THE METRO
The Heathens will appear twice in the metro on Thursday: first at a 4 p.m. in-store appearance at Hastings in Norman and onstage at 8 p.m. at the Farmers Public Market. The group began as a mutual admiration society of three singer/songwriters " Jurdi, guitarist Gordy Quist and lapsteel/dobro player Colin Brooks " that gradually morphed into a band.
Jurdi, Quist and Brooks were playing individual sets at Momo's in Austin, and later added Seth Whitney on bass and drummer John Chipman as they formalized their collaboration in 2005. Although the three original members each brought their own songs into the band, Jurdi said they quickly relinquished any tightly wound sense of control over their individual compositions.
"There's so much collaboration on everything, that it's not that anyone really attaches ownership to anything," he said. "Whoever comes in with an initial idea or if someone comes in with a finished song " even if the song is completely finished, it still goes through everybody, and everybody has input in playing the song and arranging it."
Jurdi said The Band of Heathens' roots-rock/country/Americana sound is a direct result of the specific mix of the group's members.
"Obviously, the song always comes first," he said. "But this group of musicians is the sound of the band. I know that sounds obvious, but it's like this: If you changed any piece of the puzzle, you'd have a completely different-sounding thing."
The act is among the hardest-working in the music business, playing more than 280 gigs, both in the U.S. and Europe between mid-2008 and June of this year.
Live shows have been a key ingredient along a quirky route to the Heathens' present success: Instead of releasing several studio albums as they started out, their first two albums are live shows, followed by a self-titled album released in 2008 that was produced by Austin music legend Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Well-known for both his knife-sharp sense of humor and lyrics that sometimes humorously probe man's relationship with The Almighty, Hubbard signed on as producer after learning of the group's name.
"Ray got quite a kick out of the band's name when he heard it, since he's a semi-recovering heathen himself," Jurdi said. "People think he got involved with us because of our music, but I think it was our name."
But the moniker wasn't always that. At first, they were known as the Good Times Supper Club, and the name changed due to mysterious circumstances that Jurdi was good-naturedly reluctant to discuss in depth.
"If I tell you too much, I'm afraid our cars won't start the next time we get in them," he said. "Don't worry, man " I'm just messing with you."
In the name-mystery mix are reportedly "misprinted" newspaper ads for the group's shows, a booking agent and a club owner.
"We've narrowed it down to two people. Both of them have given us similar versions of the same story," Jurdi said. "We don't question it anymore. It is what it is, and it works for us."
The Band of Heathens with Dirtfoot perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma City Farmers Public Market, 311 S. Klein. "C.G. Niebank