By Mark Bennett /Tribune-Star
The summer of 1980 gave John England his "ah-ha" moment.
On two trips to the old Towne South Cinemas in Terre Haute, England watched "Honeysuckle Rose" and "The Blues Brothers." Those starkly different movies held one common thread that hooked this 17-year-old -- soundtracks performed by incredible musicians. Classics such as "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" and "On the Road Again" from Willie Nelson graced scenes from "Honeysuckle Rose," while a host of R&B session greats surrounding Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi jammed on "Soul Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'" in "The Blues Brothers."
That enlightenment led England to his current destination, Nashville, where he proudly wears the title of "a working musician." He's played guitar and sung behind greats such as Loretta Lynn and the Pointer Sisters, in addition to fronting his own band -- John England and the Western Swingers.
He can play anything jazz, Top 40, rock, country, blues.
One day, England might play guitar on a country artist's record. The next, he could be leading a pit band through a stage production of "Hairspray." And one night later, he and the Western Swingers will be shaking things up at Roberts Western World in the Lower Broadway section of Nashville, where there's no cover charge, plenty of dancing space and lots of food.
As Western Swingers bassist David Spicher put it, "The fantastic thing about John is that he encompasses so many different styles."
Who else would get the same buzz from a double dose of Willie Nelson and The Blues Brothers Band?
"It seemed to me they were hoeing the same row musically," England, now 42, recalled last week. "Someday I hope to make a statement as personal and powerful as Willie and his band were at that time. And I know that if I do, it'll be a mix of the blues, country and all those other things I love."
His band, the Western Swingers, might just be the vehicle for that aspiration.
Western swing is an eclectic brew of sentimental ballads, waltzes, blues, eight-bar boogie, swing and big band-era sounds delivered in a frontier, fiddle-playin' format.
"It's such a melting pot of all the things I like," England said.
And apparently listeners like it too. The group's first CD "Swinging Broadway" topped all albums on the Western swing charts in 2003. Their 2004 album "Thanks a Lot" received solid reviews as well. And now England and the Western Swingers want to pack their next CD with more of their own original songs. Then, maybe one of those tunes will cross over onto the mainstream pop charts.
"I'd like to have the Western Swingers have a national hit someday," England said. "And I don't think that's entirely impossible."
Extremes in the Big Apple
As much as the summer of '80 transformed England, the nine years he later would spend in New York also shaped him musically.
England got his education in Indiana, where he grew up as one of five children of Will and Pat Engelland (John uses the simplified spelling "England" for his music business ventures). While rising from Fuqua Elementary, to Sarah Scott Junior High, and then to Terre Haute South High School, he got musical tutoring from teachers Roy Thompson, Jim Schnabel, Walt Anslinger and Tom Birkner. Eventually, England studied music at Indiana University and graduated with a degree in history.
But big lessons awaited him in New York, where he relocated in 1987.
He played one year with a punk college-radio cult band Pianosaurus, whose members performed exclusively with toy-store instruments. England's Pianosaurus ax came in a box labeled a "wooden folk guitar for little folks." Odd as it seems, the band recorded one album -- "Groovy Neighborhood" -- and appeared in the Francis Ford Coppola segment of the 1989 trilogy movie "New York Stories."
"With my long hair, I'm on screen for about two seconds," England said with a chuckle. "And I still got calls from all over the country saying, 'John, I saw you in that movie.'"
England's broad-ranging skills landed him a New York job of opposite extremes, thanks to his ability to read sheet music. (That is a rarity among guitarists in popular music. "There's a good joke -- 'How do you get a guitar player to turn down [the volume]? Put a chart in front of him,'" England said.) He got work in "society music" venues -- large ballrooms full of New York elites foxtrotting to the sounds of an orchestra.
"It's a whole different world from the Midwest," England admitted.
Yet he also wound up playing and singing along New York's subway system. "It was out of desperation that I got into that," England explained. "And I started singing more, and that's where I started playing country."
At one point in New York, England met, ironically, another transplanted Vigo County musician, Tim Carroll, who helped pioneer the alt-country sound and ended up moving to Nashville. By 1997, England had also decided to move to Music City with his wife Staci and their young daughter.
With his fascination with Western swing music growing, England had considered moving instead to the heartland of that genre -- Austin, Texas.
"I was just singing more and more country all the time," he said. "And I had friends in Austin, and they said, 'If you think it would be hard to make a living [doing country] in New York, you ought to try it in Austin.' So they scared me off that."
So he chose Nashville.
'Play something you like'
The Nashville sound most people hear on pop-country radio doesn't hold the same allure for England.
"I like country. But some of it is not to my taste," he said, tactfully. "It seems to me that a lot of it is being made for teenagers. And I'm not a teenager anymore. I like music with personality. A lot of things coming out of Music Row sound very calculated. That's what I liked about the old rock 'n' roll -- Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. Those guys were real characters."
Pop country is also a little too perfect for England.
"I like to hear a mistake every once in a while," he said. "But you'll never hear that on a country song. If the musicians don't do something about it, an engineer or a producer will."
Working outside that mass-appeal sound, though, comes at a price.
"I wouldn't bet that our music would ever make the kind of money Kenny Chesney makes," England said. "But you've got to play something you like."
In the Western Swingers, England is surrounded by Spicher, 76-year-old fiddler Gene "Pappy" Merritts, steel guitarist Tommy Hannum, keyboardist Tom McBryde, and drummer Randy Mason. Together, these guys' resumes include work behind the likes of Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Crystal Gayle, Vern Gosdin, Emmylou Harris and Lynn. On stage, they share vocal duties. But England is the tall, 6-foot-3 figure at the center microphone, handling the emcee chores and guiding them through virtually any "stump-the-band" requests by the audience.
"He can lead us through troubled waters," Spicher said, laughing.
England's experiences included more than a year leading Lynn's band on tours through parts of 2002 and 2003. That stretch included a single-night performance in New York, where Jack White -- mastermind of the punk rock band White Stripes -- performed in an improbable duet with Lynn, who is now 70. True to his versatility, England's preparation included only a quick rehearsal with White and Lynn on her tour bus just hours before the show.
Not long after that, White produced and co-wrote Lynn's album "Van Lear Rose," which won the 2005 Grammy for country album of the year.
"I was impressed with his talent," England said of White.
And his time with Lynn left an impression on England too. He sang duets with the country legend night after night. Each time they did "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," England would try to make her laugh. It usually worked. "I would cross my eyes when I'd look at her," he said. "And she'd never get tired of that."
Soon, though, his stint with her ended. The time commitment prevented England from accepting other musical work around Nashville.
"It was just time to stay in town and do other things," he said.
Hipsters like the sound
England stays close to home in Nashville. Family reasons make that important.
Just months after the Englands moved there, his wife and daughter were involved in a serious automobile accident. That Oct. 15, 1997 crash left their little girl -- not yet 2 years old -- only slightly hurt. But Staci still copes with lingering effects of her more serious injuries.
"Many of the people who are really successful [in music] really make sacrifices from their families," England said. "And I'm just not going to be able to do that."
But he's still making plenty of music, especially with the Western Swingers. And theirs is not a completely obscure art form. Willie Nelson himself got his start with that style as the bass player in Ray Price's band. Nelson still includes swing standards in his concerts, and when he and Bob Dylan toured minor-league baseball parks around the country in the fall of 2004, they employed a Western swing band as their opening act. As for England and his group, they draw much of their inspiration from Western swing icons Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well as trailblazers like Nelson.
"West Coast hipsters," as England put it, have helped Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel earn a bevy of country music Grammys over the years, even though their record sales pale in comparison to the big-name artists.
England would love to have the hipsters love his Western Swingers too.
"I see us picking up momentum," England said. "And if you stay in the game, hopefully in 10 years anybody associated with the Nashville music business, if they mention Western swing, they're going to mention John England and the Western Swingers."
Mark Bennett can be reached by telephone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 6, Ext. 377, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
John England bio
Hometown: Terre Haute.
Education: Fuqua Elementary, Sarah Scott Junior High, Terre Haute South High School (1981 grad) and Indiana University.
Family: England and his wife Staci have a daughter.
Parents: Will and Pat Engelland of Terre Haute. England also has "four great siblings." (In music business ventures, John uses the simplified "England" spelling of his last name.)
Job: Working musician in Nashville as a guitarist and singer.
Has performed or recorded with: Loretta Lynn, the Pointer Sisters, Carrie Newcomer, Pianosaurus, Andy Griggs, Darlene Love, Trace Adkins and Rodney Crowell, among others.
Primary band: John England and the Western Swingers. Their albums include "Swinging Broadway" from 2003 and "Thanks a Lot" from 2004.