Once upon a time, Greg Spradlin had designs on becoming a rock star. He once told No Depression magazine that his former band, The Skeeterhawks, had "been sent to save rock 'n' roll."
Nowadays, Spradlin, 43, works as a consultant to non-profits, trading on years of experience as an upper-level manager for the Heifer International Foundation. He pops up on stage from time to time, stealing the show at Riverfest or playing a big-shot industry event. Ask local music nerds and they're liable to tell you that Spradlin's the best guitarist in the state. But for more than a decade now, he's been more of a nine-to-fiver than a rocker.
"I went through three failed record deals before I was 26," he says. "I got beat up and burned out pretty early."
So you'll excuse him if he can hardly believe his good fortune: Years after he'd decided, well, "fuck this," he finds himself fronting a band with guitar legend (and Spradlin's boyhood hero) David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and long-time Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas, who Tom Waits has called "one of the best rock drummers alive." How he got there is a story that sounds like a Greg Spradlin song: A whole lot of heartbreak and a whole lot of shouting that ends in, if not redemption, at least a well-earned hallelujah.
Spradlin has been playing music professionally since he was 14. While still in high school, he became a guitar mercenary for the honky-tonk bands in White and Cleburne counties. Word got around: If your guitar man fell out, there was a kid in Pangburn who already knew the pickup to all your songs. The gigs were rough — a teen-ager waltzing into grimy bars with grown men who showed up as much for the fighting as for the music. His parents made him take a pistol to gigs, just in case.
"I didn't think it was weird at the time," Spradlin says. "It never occurred to me that I might end up in a shootout."
Everyone agreed: This boy could play. These were hard-bitten and inglorious days for Spradlin — going to family-band rehearsals in creepy shacks in the boonies, playing "Sweet Home Alabama" in a Hawaiian shirt, entertaining town drunks. But let's not get off track. Spradlin is like a windup doll of redneck-Gothic memories and too-good-to-check stories; one whiskey in, he rattles off more material than could fit in these pages.
Point is, by the time he was 20, he was "hard and crusty," having spent every week of his life in dive bars, paying his dues well past the point of any reasonable return. He was playing one night at White Water Tavern when a fast-talking, long-haired guy approached him after the set.
"I'm from Arkansas and I live in L.A. now and I've got a deal with Warner Bros. and I want you to be in my band," the dude sputtered breathlessly. Figuring he was full of it, Spradlin gave him his number and forgot all about it.
But it turned out that this big talker was a guy named Bryson Jones from Newport who really did have a development deal with Warner Bros. What Jones didn't have was a band, or even an act. He had been in a hair-metal outfit that tried to make it in L.A. The band sucked, but a record-industry manager thought the charismatic Jones was cute. She hooked him up with an A&R guy, and in those heady days of fast-and-loose deals, that was all it took. The A&R man told Jones they didn't need any more metal acts. But Jones was from Arkansas and The Black Crowes were huge at the time, so how about a Southern-rock band? Why not?
Jones saw Spradlin and thought " 'the thing that you do, I need that.' " The decision makers at Warner Bros. agreed and Spradlin, who had never been on a plane before, was flown out to L.A. to start a band with Jones.
What followed was essentially an attempt to put together a Southern-rock boy band. "Straight up, this was a manufactured act," Spradlin says. "There was no art involved." The A&R guy brought together a mismatched crew to play with them, including a speed-metal drummer from Iowa and a male-model guitarist from Hawaii.
Their big moment was supposed to come with a showcase in front of all of the Warner brass, in town for their annual meeting. Unfortunately, it had been a bad year for Time Warner, and immediately prior to going to see Spradlin and company, the label honchos had been told that there was a signing freeze and rosters needed to be slashed.
"Then they came to see us," Spradlin remembers. "They're like, why are we here? There's not going to be any new band."
At this point, the band didn't even have a name (surely "creek" and "boys" would have been involved). Of course, as ridiculous as these Bad News Bears of Southern rock were, they might well have made it on to the scene if the whole goofy scenario had taken place a year earlier.
"The theme of my life is timing," Spradlin says. "With my music, it's always stuff like that. If I booked a gig tonight, it would come a hailstorm."
Spradlin, dejected, went back to Arkansas. He finished up college, worked odd jobs, and eventually started The Skeeterhawks. This was no boy band. Beloved in the burgeoning alt-country scene, they made impassioned country rock that combined a rollicking punk spirit and soulful, Gram Parsons-tinged twang.
The band got the thumbs up from No Depression magazine, then the kingmakers of alt-country, where an apparently over-caffeinated writer declared that Spradlin "would rock you like the wind of an Ozark overlook, where tips of descending burnt-yellow sycamores open on the gleaming blue of Lake Quachita [sic]." Labels came calling. Things were looking up.
And then a wrong turn: The Skeeterhawks signed with San Francisco-based Synapse Records, a rap label looking to branch out.
"We signed a ridiculous deal," Spradlin says. "That's what you get for hiring a $500 lawyer."
The band went to California and cut a sub-par version of the record they'd already made back in Arkansas. Everyone was getting a bad feeling about the label and the deal, a feeling that got worse as the days went by without anyone seeing a dime. The band went back to Little Rock, the record never came out, and they never heard from the label again.
"We thought our whole record was gone," Spradlin says. "They wouldn't call us back. We didn't own anything, we couldn't do anything."
Their record in limbo, the band slowly fell apart.
Spradlin took some time off, then cut some solo demos with a Music Row manager. The manager was shopping them around to labels when someone broke into his house in Nashville and stole his hard drive, which had the only copy of the demos.
Spradlin is the sort of guy apt to believe in signs, and by this point, the signs seemed clear. "I felt like the universe was telling me something," he says. "I thought, 'Obviously music is not what I'm supposed to be doing,' even though I know down to my core this is all I'm really good at."
And maybe that's where this story would have ended — a life of almosts, rock 'n' roll dreams on the shelf — if not for Jim Dickinson. Dickinson, a Little Rock native, was a revered producer and musician and one of the godfathers of the Memphis sound. He played on iconic records by Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, produced Big Star's seminal "Third/Sister Lovers," and served as a kind of North Star for aficionados of outre Southern music. He took a shine to Spradlin and played on "... and Twiced as Gone," the local cult classic that Spradlin produced himself at home, which Dickinson praised as the "perfect Southern weirdo record."
The two grew close, and Dickinson became something of a musical father figure to Spradlin, who still refers to Dickinson as "my Obi-Wan Kenobi." Even as Spradlin got himself a real job and got out the guitar less and less, Dickinson was always in his ear, prodding him to line up better musicians to play with, to fulfill the destiny that Dickinson saw for him, even when Spradlin himself was ready to give up.
Dickinson and Spradlin had planned to make a record together: This was the next big thing, the manic dream they never quite got around to. Dickinson's heart gave out and he passed away in 2009 before they got the chance.
Dickinson had requested that Spradlin do the eulogy at his funeral. The last line he wanted read was, "I'm just dead, I'm not gone." At that point, musically speaking, Greg Spradlin was something like the opposite: alive, just gone.
But Dickinson's death shook Spradlin, woke him up. He felt like his mentor was still pushing him.
"When Jim died, he didn't actually stop producing," Spradlin says. "He had set all these things in motion. He knew what he was doing even though you didn't see it coming."
Dickinson's outsized presence was still haunting Spradlin when his friend and collaborator, Jason Weinheimer of The Boondogs, mentioned that he was considering calling Pete Thomas, who had played with The Boondogs over the years, to play drums on a record Weinheimer was producing.
"Greg got real serious," Weinheimer says. "He said, 'Man, you have to do this. I have huge regrets about things I didn't do with Jim, and now he's gone. I'm not going to let that happen again. Now's the time.' "
Weinheimer and Spradlin asked Thomas to come down a day early to play on some songs that Spradlin had tucked away. Thomas was game, so Weinheimer sent him a copy of "... and Twiced as Gone."
"The first thing Pete says when we pick him up," Weinheimer recounts, "I listened to Greg's CD — he's a motherfucker."
"Yes, he is," Weinheimer said. "That's one way to describe him."
Turns out that since Weinheimer sent him the album, Thomas had been listening non-stop and drumming along to it.
"That was my first clue that this was not going to be just a session for Pete," Weinheimer says.
Both Spradlin and Thomas were initially apprehensive about playing with each other. "He's a British drummer," Spradlin says. "He plays in front of the beat. I'm used to playing with greasy guys — funky, weird, Southern drummers."
So at first they had to muddle through, this rock legend from Sheffield, England, and this hard-luck guitar hand from Pangburn, Arkansas. It was awkward in the beginning, until ... it wasn't. Neither had ever played with someone quite like the other and somehow a bluesy chemistry between the two blossomed. They ended up plowing through a marathon session, laying down nine songs in a single day.
"It was magical," Weinheimer says. "In one day they created something that didn't exist before."
"I thought Greg was great," Thomas says. "He's got these crazy lyrics, he's a crazy guitar player, he's a reverend, he's irreverent. I thought he was brilliant."
Things snowballed from there. Thomas invited Spradlin and Weinheimer out to L.A. to do more work on the songs. Spradlin mentioned a couple of guys he'd like to play with — Rudy Copeland, an extraordinary Hammond B-3 organ player known for his work with Solomon Burke, and David Hidalgo, which seemed like a bit of a pipe dream since Hidalgo was then playing with Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
Thomas made some calls; both Copeland and Hidalgo were in. "I thought, this is getting insane," Spradlin says.
"Pete gave me a call one day and asked if I wanted to do a session with this cat from Arkansas," Hidalgo recounts. "He said, the way only Pete can say, 'he's quite good.' And he was right — the music was real. It reminded me of everything I like about music."
For all of the big-time musicians Spradlin had played with over the years — in addition to Thomas and Dickinson, he's played with Lucinda Williams, Chuck Berry, and others — he has never been more awestruck and thrilled by a musician than Hidalgo.
"Since I was a kid, I held him up as the greatest guitar player," Spradlin says. "When I was growing up in Pangburn watching Friday night videos, all my friends were into Van Halen, Guns N' Roses. I never got it, it never hit me. Then Los Lobos came out, I'm getting that. I don't know why I related to these guys from East L.A. but we come from the same something."
"When we started playing together, [Hidalgo] said, 'Me and you must have listened to the same records,' " Spradlin says. "And I was like, 'Yeah, yours.' "
And here, once again, despite radically different backgrounds, a special connection emerged.
After laying down a bass line on one of Spradlin's songs, "The Maker," Hidalgo said, "I've been writing songs for years, I can't believe I didn't write that song."
"When this whole thing started, these guys were our heroes," Weinheimer says. "But it was clear very early on, there was mutual respect being given to Greg. It wasn't just him playing with his dream band. They were into it as much as we were."
A few weeks later, Spradlin got an excited call from Thomas. "I just got a call from Mr. Hidalgo," Thomas shouted in to the phone, "and he wants to start a band with us!"
So far, this fledgling band, newly dubbed Greg Spradlin and the Band of Imperials, has recorded about an album's worth of material, though Spradlin says he's unlikely to release it as a record per se, preferring to release the songs one by one.
The Imperials sound like a bar band, in the very best way. The 10 songs they've finished so far are loose, swampy, anthemic, psychedelic. They sound like Arkansas, and they sound like something from another planet. Spradlin growls and wails like a drunken preacher. It's both more playful and more expansive than anything he has recorded before, dirty enough for a dive bar but with the sprawling ambition of arena rock. It doesn't sound like an A&R guy was anywhere near it.
"It's not a record I would have made without them," Spradlin says. "As soon as we started working together we had so much fun just making a meathead Southern-rock record. We're all fans of big simple rock. We're playing to those things that we all dig at a caveman level."
When Spradlin found out his heroes had the same guilty pleasure as he did, he wasn't so guilty after all.
"It's like a fantasy camp for [Hidalgo and Thomas] to play this music authentically," Weinheimer says. "If anyone else said 'Let's play Southern rock' to Greg, he'd quit the band. Their enthusiasm made it OK and let Greg do what he can do so naturally."
What's next for the Imperials? They're going to do some more recording, and hope to eventually play some shows live. The challenge is scheduling — forming a band with rock stars is a logistical nightmare.
"This thing has been kind of miraculous," Spradlin says. "If nothing else comes from this, I got to make a great record with some of my all-time favorite musicians. What more can you ask for?"
"When I was younger, I was a little too serious about the business end of it. I got to this point, I do it because I love it. The sad reality is, no one is making a decent living. Real guys do it for free."