Bearfoot and playin'
Award-winning local band to take Madison stage Thursday
By Kathryn Purcell
Stuck somewhere between rock and roll and outlaw country (that’s not the kind on the radio, mind you; they don’t subscribe to that) with blues-ish undertones, the sticky, gritty-as-a-bar-room-floor-on-a-Friday-night phenomenon that is The Bearfoot Hookers is best consumed with a flask of moderately priced whiskey, or a cold six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
There’s a reason they bill it as “Beer Drinkin’ Gospel.”
And, in the interest of fair warning, the Hookers are coming to Madison – Thursday, August 25, to be exact, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Round Bowl Springs Park, directly behind Madison Markets – as part of the Madison Summer Concert Series, sponsored by Madison Main Street.
But they aren’t here by chance. Half the band is tied to Morgan County in one way or another and the others, well, they’re guilty by association.
Guitarist and vocalist Ty Manning teaches art at Morgan County High School; guitarist and vocalist Mark Durfield is an engineer at Madison-based Sovis; and bassist Jon Tonge owns Dog Ear Books. Drummer Shawn Collins, pianist Scott Nicholson and guitarist Marcus Thompson complete the whiskey-soaked outfit.
“The band is like a dysfunctional marriage between four guys,” Tonge said.
The Hookers began in the summer of 2003, when a friend of Tonge’s, also the owner of an Athens bar, needed a band for a party he was throwing.
Tonge and Manning put the band together and, deciding that they liked the outcome, the Hookers formed and immediately began work on their first CD – “Sweet Pickle Grits,” a compilation of 12 original songs recorded at Durfield’s house.
“We ripped out all our CD cases, put in covers and sat around and wrapped the CDs,” Tonge said, of the upstart operation.
After serving time playing at some of the less popular Athens venues, the “Beer Drinkin’ Gospel” phenomenon caught on and the Hookers played a rigorous schedule across the state throughout the next year.
“The first two years were busy years,” Durfield said. “We played over 40 shows per year.”
This spurred them to record their second CD, “Life at the Bar,” in 2004. The CD is another compilation of original songs, as well as a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.”
Following the release of this CD, the Hookers began playing the Southeast, from college towns in Georgia to Alabama and Florida.
The album furthered the popularity of the Hookers at home.
“‘Life at the Bar’ did a lot for us,” Durfield said. “We worked with a lot of the right people and, through word of mouth, we got a lot bigger. That cemented our place in Athens.”
At the same time, however, Athens music critics weren’t quite sure what genre of music the Hookers fell under.
“We were called a funny country band for a long time,” Durfield said. “It took recording ‘Life at the Bar’ to change that for good.”
More importantly, though, the music scene began to take notice. The Hookers were named one of the “Bands to Watch in 2005” by Athens-based Flagpole Magazine and the track “Beggar’s Prayer” from “Life at the Bar” was chosen as part of the 2005 AthFest Compilation CD.
“By the middle of 2006, they couldn’t ignore us anymore,” Durfield said.
The Bearfoot Hookers were awarded the Flagpole Music Award (which is based on fan votes) in the “Country, Americana, Roots Rock” category in 2006, and the track “I’d Rather Two-Step (than Twelve-Step)” was included in the 2006 AthFest Compilation CD.
The band continued to play shows throughout the Southeast, picking up current and honorary members along the way.
Additionally, the song “Rain Don’t Stop the Trains” was part of the 2007 AthFest Compilation CD – Volume 2.
This year, the band was again honored with a Flagpole Music Award, this time in the “Country” category.
“I think the difference this time [with the Flagpole Music Awards] is that all the other bands [in the “Country” category] with the exception of one is considered popular country,” Durfield said.
“I didn’t know we had as many fans as we did,” Tonge said.
Whether it’s the fact that they’ve won two Flagpole Music Awards or that they can turn out a crowd, though toothless at times, The Bearfoot Hookers do have fans – in Morgan County, Athens and all over the Southeast.
They agree that they best show they’ve played was at the Georgia Theatre for an AthFest Release Party. Other favorite Athens spots include the Caledonia Lounge and Tasty World.
As Tonge and Manning are from Waycross, they always get a good reception when traveling down to South Georgia to play a show.
The most interesting show thus far, according to Durfield, Tonge and Manning, took place in Tallahassee, Fla., and involved line dancing, karaoke and arriving to find a septic tank truck that fell into the nearby river.
“We should’ve known that was not a good omen,” Tonge said.
The Hookers are more than ready to play Thursday night, as many local friends and co-workers often talk about wanting to see them perform, but can’t make the shows.
“It’s cool because a lot of people down here can’t get to the places we play,” Tonge said.
“I think it’s cool that the people we work with finally get to come see us,” Manning said. “My kids are all excited about it.”
They also want to assure those who may be concerned that they’ve made the music, well, appropriate for the family atmosphere that the Madison Summer Concert Series typically attracts without losing what appeals to their typical crowd.
“The only thing that will change is some of the words,” Durfield said.
And it seems that Morgan County is ready.
“I had someone tell me they were coming to see me play before I even knew we were playing,” Manning said.
All of that said, this Thursday night in Madison brings with it the “Beer Drinkin’ Gospel,” according to The Bearfoot Hookers.
And a possible Armageddon. So, bring your own beer.
What follows is an abbreviated version of the story of the genesis of rock and roll, as told by The Bearfoot Hookers, and can be found on their Web site (www.thebearfoothookers.com) along with a lot of other Hooker-type information.
Once upon a time, before the birth of rock and roll, the Universe was void and shapeless. And God was bored. He searched and searched but could find nothing solid upon which he could stomp his feets. And then God had an idea. He said “I’ll make a planet with rocks and stuff and I’ll put all manner of creepy crawlies on it. And they will make music for My enjoyment.” And so He did. But none of the creepy crawlies had any rhythm whatsoever. And God was not pleased.
...God tried again...So the man formed a record label and signed the other man, and they began writing songs.
But alas, the men had no songs to write except simple nursery rhymes about the goings on of the creepy crawlies. They became bored and began to dabble in narcotics. God saw this and was not pleased. So He thought, “What can I do to keep these two idiots out of trouble?” And then He had an idea and said, “I’ll make a woman and she will be beautiful and smart and provide wholesome entertainments for the men.” And so, God created woman. And He was pleased. And the two men were very pleased. And it didn’t take long before the men were in competition for the affections of the woman. Nor did it take the woman long to figure out that all she had to do was tilt her head and smile and the two men would do anything she asked. God saw this and said, “They are hopeless. I’m outta here.”
So, as the competition between the men grew, and as the woman expertly played them against each other for her own benefit, the men became melancholy. It was then that they discovered the blues. And then some guy invented electricity and some other guy made a guitar that plugged into a really loud amplifier and rock and roll was born.
And then six guys realized that if they got on stage in a bar and played some songs about crazy women and booze, they got to drink for free. And so The Bearfoot Hookers were formed. And the rest is history.