Rule No. 1 for bands struggling to find their sound: If you don't want to play bluegrass, don't hire a banjo player. If you don't like jigs, forget the penny whistler.
Sounds obvious, but it was the kind of thing that Steve Leslie had to think about when he ran into pedal steel guitar player Garth Highsmith in Bellingham in 2004. The Texas-born Leslie had been playing bass and guitar in "whatever-rock" garage bands around Seattle and Everett since he was 12 or 13 years old. After graduating high school, he joined a pop rock band, toured the country and wound up at Western Washington University in Bellingham, releasing "my own singer-songwriter stuff" with an informal group, under the name Chuckanut Drive.
That's when Highsmith offered his services. Leslie says he had his doubts at first. "Once you get a pedal guy in the band, you're a country band, whether you like it or not. That kind of seals the deal," he says.
Those reservations melted when he and guitarist Loren Huggins heard Highsmith play. "Lauren and I looked and each other and said, 'Who cares, man? We want this guy in the band.'"
The result was, yes, a country band. But in the best possible way: We're talkin' Flying Burrito Brothers and Uncle Tupelo country. And it's that pedal steel that makes it all happen. Not that Leslie's ragged vocals and Huggins' chicken-pecking guitar are anything to scoff at, but Highsmith's soaring, laughing, whining steel ties the group's second full-length release, Crooked Mile Home (released last year), tightly to the country milieu. Pulled taut, it's the kind of music that makes you want to speed down country roads with the top down, an open container between your legs.
Which is appropriate, really. Leslie says the album got its start as a road movie. He and some friends were driving to Vegas for a friend's bachelor's party and decided it'd be fun to make a film while they drove. The opening scene would be set on Chuckanut Drive, the scenic and perilously winding road that skirts Samish Bay from Bellingham to Skagit County. They never made the movie, but the name eventually stuck to the band, and the film's plot planted the seeds for the record.
"I didn't initially set out to make a concept album," Leslie says, adding, "I hate to call it a concept album. When you say that, people get this idea, like, 'Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.'"
But when song after song ended up being about life on the road, a story arc emerged. "I said, 'Man, people are going to start to get tired of the same kind of song unless I connect the dots and make a full story about it." The result is a kind of Odyssean walkabout, in which the main character -- for reasons that are never quite clear -- runs into one misadventure after another, in one Western town after another, before returning home spent and broken.
The record has gotten play on a number of Internet radio stations and has earned the group some critical acclaim. Rightly so. You can't help but shake and grin on up-tempo numbers like "Reno to Vegas" and "Little Did I Know," shit-kickers that show a little hint of Stax soul. (In the latter, a state trooper lets our hero off with a warning because, he says, "Even I like to speed to Johnny Cash.") On slower tunes, like the achingly sensitive "You Cross My Mind," you want to cry in your beer. Which, for a country-rock band, is a good thing.
Of course, they're still a regional act, and nobody's quitting his day job just yet. Kubby, the drummer, tends bar on the side. Bassist Chris Hess has a doctoral degree in evolutionary biology. Leslie, who earned a bachelor's in journalism, sells hats in Bellingham. "I'm a haberdasher. I sell men's and women's hats," he says. "That doesn't sound very rock 'n' roll, does it?"
Maybe not, but if selling a fedora or two can keep him on the road, he suggests, then it's worth it.
"We put out records so we can play live," Leslie says. "We just love to bring it live, man. The kids nowadays ... sometimes there's just not enough sauce. We bring the sauce. You'll see some hot sauce."
Chuckanut Drive plays at Rock Coffee, 920 W. First Ave., on Friday, March 17, at 8 pm, with Michael Fairchild and Robert Dunn and the North Country. Tickets: $4, Call 838-1864. Also playing Saturday at John's Alley.