Whiskey bent and hell bound

Jack A. Weil died this month at age 107.

Weil was the Denver clothier who invented the Western shirt, the kind with the sawtooth pockets and snaps, one of which was being worn by singer-guitarist Leroy Virgil (né Bower), frontman for the Reno outlaw country-rock band Hellbound Glory, on the patio of the Elkhorn Station Roadside Bar and Grill, a nice little joint in what’s technically West Sacramento, just south of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Sacramento River on the Yolo County side.

That bar and restaurant is set in a field of denuded alfalfa among old Ford Model Ts and As, an old fire truck, a totaled demolition-derby beater—once a Dodge Charger?—along with a big sycamore and a few scrubby oaks. The early evening crowd there Friday was middle-aged with a slight Sturgis lean, with kids running around on the patio’s brown grass and blacktop.

Hellbound Glory got there as the sun was setting, and began playing around 8:15 p.m. Its 90-minute set, under Jupiter bright amid a rich sweep of stars, was a fine mix of Virgil-penned originals, many of them from the band’s recent release, Scumbag Country (on the Woodland-based indie label Gearhead Records), and nuggets from the songbooks of Hank Williams Jr., Charlie Daniels, David Allan Coe and other two-wheeled redneck favorites.

It didn’t take long for the audience to stratify: A couple songs in, the band lurched into Hank Jr.’s classic “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,” and you could sense a shift; a cover choice like that telegraphs its punch quite succinctly as to what’s up ahead. A few songs later, there was a noticeable gap between the tattooed drinkers near the stage and the folks hunkering at the far back. Soon, most of those folks disappeared, kids in tow, in a line of taillights heading south along the river road.

But Hellbound Glory, just off its first national tour, was just getting started. Virgil barked lyrics into a makeshift mic that sounded like it was purloined from a sheriff’s department inventory of jailhouse bullhorns, accompanying himself on a blond Fender Telecaster. The high point of each song was when he’d yell, “Take it away, Johnny,” and the guy to his right with the straw cowboy hat would unleash a flurry of sonic sparks from the fretboard of his black Telecaster.

Johnny Fingers has that cool Tele tone, the kind of sound that’s bright like the chrome must’ve looked on a showroom Mercury circa 1956; the notes come at you all stiff-legged and frantic, like a young Johnny Cash hopped up on truck-driver whites trying to dance like James Brown. My only complaint was that he set his amp’s volume a few notches under 11, probably out of respect for the families the band ended up scaring off anyway.

With drummer Chico Kortan anchoring a solid backbeat and bassist Frank Median dishing out the occasional two-step “eat shit” bass pattern, Virgil and Fingers powered through the band’s repertoire of songs that catalog various alcoholic behaviors—drinking, more drinking, getting arrested for drunk driving (“Hello, Five-0”). The band’s signature tune seems to be “Get Your Shit and Go,” which acutely describes the vicissitudes of booze-lubricated romantic relationships; it went over like free beer with the small crowd that remained. Missing from the set was “I’ll Be Your Rock (at Rock Bottom),” another fine Virgil original that captures the days of wine and roses.

Like Weil’s cowboy shirts, Hellbound Glory evokes Western style, in this case the 1970s hard country-rock amalgam defined by Waylon Jennings and others, in fine fashion. Long may they stagger.