The adage “When one door closes, another door opens” fits Bakersfield country duo Lucky Ned Pepper.
Guitarist Josh Graham and singer Rick Russell, of the defunct Bakersfield group Smokin’ Armadillos, are about to take the plunge back into the business of making music after parting ways with their bandmates seven years ago.
Curious fans will get a chance to check out their new musical direction when they take the stage at the National Day of the Cowboy concert at the Springville Rodeo Grounds on Saturday, July, 21.
“We’re just so happy right now,” said Graham, 39, of the new project. “This is like our baby, and we just want to get it out there.”
This marks only the second official appearance of the pair, following their February 2011 debut at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, the venue where the Armadillos took their final bow.
“We all went our separate way after the farewell show, but Rick had always said he may possibly do a solo project,” recalled Graham. “A few months later, he called me to see if I could help him out. At the time I was just doing some sound engineering around town.”
Former Smokin’ Armadillos members Josh Graham, left, and Rick Russell return to the music scene as Lucky Ned Pepper. Photo courtesy of Lucky Ned Pepper
The two began recording early demos in 2005 with no plans other than to keep things on standby.
“It started out as me just helping, but then it turned into, ‘Maybe you can do a little more of this.’ I think we just got so used to working together that the idea of doing a solo project was a little daunting,” Graham said. “I think he just thought it would be better to have the two of us, and maybe it would be a little more comfortable. We just fiddled around in the studio.”
After recording a couple of songs, the pair have decided to get down to business. They record at American Sound Recording studio, which Graham formerly co-owned, under the name Lucky Ned Pepper, the character played by Robert Duvall in the 1969 classic “True Grit,” starring John Wayne.
“We got the name the same way we got Smokin’ Armadillos. You sit there and go through hundreds of them. One night I was sitting around throwing names around with my wife on the back porch. For some reason, my son, who was 4 at the time, loved watching ‘True Grit’ and John Wayne. I think we just mentioned it as a funny possibility. We went online and checked the domain name to see if it was available. Rick and I have always liked cowboy stuff, and we just decided to go with it.”
Above: Lucky Ned Pepper as original trio with singer Joy Sampson (center)
Background vocalist Joy Sampson was recruited as a third member.
“The whole Lady Antebellum thing was happening and it just seemed to be more interesting and fun,” Graham said. “We went back to cut four more songs. She added so much we decided, ‘Why not keep her?’”
While the sessions were wrapping up, they’d also been plotting a return to the stage selling out their Crystal Palace appearance mostly through word of mouth. But just as things were heating up, Sampson announced she was expecting.
“Even at the time we’d been recording, she had already mentioned she wanted to have another child. We said, ‘OK, we’ll deal with it when we get there,’ and there we were. We all met and she decided she’d better just pull away from this thing all together. She’s a great person and a great friend.”
After finishing up all 14 self-produced new recordings, Graham and Russell cut the collection to 11, before choosing “I Remember the Music” as the lead-off single for independent release Aug. 27, through a partnership with Nashville record label Nine North Records. The release will be followed by the full-length debut, “Get Lucky,” in late September.
“People were always telling us to go independent, since there are only four major labels left, but now several of these labels work as a buffet. You can hire their promotion, marketing staffs or legal departments just for you. That’s the way the Zac Brown Band did it.”
No previews of the single were available for review, but the two have been making the radio rounds on a few stations, namely KUZZ in Bakersfield and KJUG in Porterville.
“Half the interview is usually about what we’re doing now, and about what happened to the Smokin’ Armadillos. I work with Darren (Kirkindoll) at the church I work at, Scott (Meeks) and I chat every once in awhile, Jason (Theiste) plays bluegrass with some guys I know, and Aaron (Casida) lives on the coast now.”
Even though the guys remain on good terms, Graham said fans shouldn’t hold their breath for a ’Dillos reunion any time soon. But, then, you never know.
“Rick and I committed to each other to try and do at least one Smokin’ Armadillos song live. Honestly, to do another show, I don’t know, maybe when all the planets are aligned and everything falls into place at the right time. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t. I think someone’s just gotta say, ‘Let’s do it.’ We used to have so much fun.”
Joining Graham and Russell on stage will be: Jarred Pope, drums; Dennis Hamm, keys; Jimmy Pettis, guitar; and Jason Gill, bass. Also appearing will be country singer, Jason Cassidy.
National Day of the Cowboy concert
with Lucky Ned Pepper and Jason Cassidy
When: Gates open at 5:30 p.m. show at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 21st, 2012
Where: Springville Rodeo Grounds, 34754 Highway 190, in Springville, CA
Admission: $15 GA
Information: 559-310-4596 or rodeo49.com
About "National Day of the Cowboy"
Although organizers have dubbed the show “National Day of the Cowboy,” the event will consist only of the concert. According to promoter, Rene Hernandez, he and co-promoter, Nashville songwriter Larry Bastian, the show is to bring attention to a national campaign spearheaded by the non-profit, Arizona-based, National Day of the Cowboy heritage organization. The goal of the organization is to push for a nationally recognized holiday in honor of the American cowboy on the fourth Saturday of every July. To read a copy of the proposed resolution, visit nationaldayofthecowboy.com.
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Also printed in the 7-19-12 issue of The Bakersfield Californian