Back comes the California Honky Tonk: Hank & Ella with the Fine Country Band return from pandemic break
The pandemic took Hank & Ella with the Fine Country Band off the road and gave the group time to make a new album. Now they’re ready to reengage audiences with their brand of “California honky tonk,” starting Saturday at Michael’s on Main.
It all takes a bit of unpacking, so pay attention. There might be a test later.
Henry Warde, who often goes by “Hank,” and his wife, Ella, are not only spouses but musical collaborators. He’s a guitarist and singer; she plays the fiddle. Same goes for Meghan Leslie, who plays bass, and her husband, Curtis, who plays guitar under the stage name “Poncho Lefty.”
The two couples play together as a foursome, which is convenient considering they are also next-door neighbors on a ranch just outside Watsonville. Think Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel, but with cowboy hats.
Hank and Ella Warde occasionally play as a duo, as do Ella and Leslie under the name “The Diamond Sisters.” Mix in “Uncle” Dave Magram on pedal steel and Marty Carpenter on drums, and you have a full-on vintage six-piece honky tonk band.
Tie a ribbon around the whole package and you have “Hank & Ella with the Fine Country Band.”
Like most musical groups, the Fine Country Band has, for more than a year now, existed mostly as a concept. For about eight years, the FCB was performing regularly — more than 100 shows a year — throughout central California, from the Bay Area to San Luis Obispo, as well as many of the most prominent venues in Santa Cruz County. Then came a worldwide pandemic you might have read about, and the band’s schedule zeroed out.
As Hank & Ella, the Wardes would occasionally play small duo gigs at Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing, but as a full band, the FCB was, temporarily, out of business. No longer performing, the band took advantage of the down time to make a new album.
On Saturday, Hank & Ella with the Fine Country Band will get back into the mainstream of performing with a headlining show at Michael’s on Main in Soquel. The show is to celebrate the release of the band’s new album, “Good at Being Lonely.”
“We were really busy,” said Hank Warde, the band’s frontman and lead songwriter, reflecting on pre-pandemic times. “So, to suddenly take all that off the plate, and having 100 free nights given back to you, I mean, I don’t think (the new album) would have happened if we didn’t have all that time back.”
The album — recorded at the Wardes’ recently built home studio — is a collection of original songs of what the band touts as “California country.” There is certainly an old-school honky tonk vibe to the sound that pays respect to the golden age of Nashville (the Wardes even have a pet cat named Kitty Wells).
As the album’s title indicates, loneliness and heartbreak are central themes. But it’s not all crying in your beer. One of Hank Warde’s favorites is an upbeat tune called “The Good Old Days are Now” that name-checks places that a local music fan would recognize, even evoking the late Larry Hosford, one of Santa Cruz’s most legendary singer/songwriters.
“I saw that phrase on a bumper sticker while driving on Highway 1,” Warde said. “It mentions a bunch of landmarks in Santa Cruz County, and one of my favorite places to go is Rio Del Mar, which is also a shout-out to Larry Hosford, who sang about Rio Del Mar in one of his songs. But it’s just a reminder that the good old days are now and you’ve got to stay present and live in the moment.”
Hank and Ella Warde first met more than a decade ago at a bluegrass festival in Grass Valley. Next week, they will celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary. Hank, Ella, Meghan and Curtis all began jamming together as a bluegrass band.
“We were festival jammers,” Meghan Leslie said. “We’d go to places like Strawberry and Grass Valley and just jam all night.”
“So we had the core four of us that had played together for a long time,” Hank Warde said, “and we got to the point where we wanted to do something different.”
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At that point, the band “went electric,” as Warde put it, enlisting Magram and Carpenter, turning from the high lonesome of bluegrass to the Hank Williams-style pathos of honky tonk.
“We all live in the country, so we like all things country,” Leslie said, “like banjos and fiddles and rocking chairs and horses.”
The “California honky tonk” approach extends even to the band’s visual aesthetic that evokes a bit of old-school country glamour as well.
“That’s something we’ve taken from bluegrass,” Warde said. “The founders of bluegrass and country music, they knew they had to show up and look professional.”
That doesn’t quite translate to the rhinestone-studded “Nudie suits” of Elvis-style glitz. It’s more cowboy hats and pearl-snap shirts for the guys, and impeccably 1950s-era styling in hair and makeup for the ladies. “That’s our big thing, hunting for vintage clothes that fit the ’50s country look,” Leslie said.
Those outfits have hung forlornly in a closet for more than a year now. Saturday’s show will again feature the various moving parts of the Fine Country Band, just how it was before the pandemic interruption.
“Yeah, I can sing, like, seven songs in a row,” Warde said. “And people get comfortable with what they think the show is going to be like. Then, we’ll bring out the Diamond Sisters, and that’s a whole other part of it. Or, we might turn Poncho Lefty loose on a guitar instrumental and he tears it up. So we have all these things going on in the band that keeps the audience engaged.”
For more information on the FCB’s latest album “Good at Being Lonely,” visit the band’s website.