There is a line dividing fans of country music. On one side stands the pop-country enthusiast, fans of so-called – hat acts – churned out by the Nashville money people on Music Row, with songs that writing teams polish and script like greeting cards, with a heavy reliance on cutesy, repetitive rhyming schemes, easy sentimentality and proven hooks. On the other side stands the traditional country fan: folks who prefer their county a little rough around the edges with a cold beer and a shot of whiskey. They like songs that dig a little deeper into the human condition from a more personal perspective, songs about pain “pain usually caused by too much drinkin’, lovin’ and fightin’.
Huckleberry Blue, a six-piece band from Columbia City, clearly prefer the traditional side of country music. They call their music – honky grass – “old-style honky-tonk with a side of bluegrass for good measure” and cite Johnny Cash, John Prine, Merle Haggard, Sugarland, Bonnie Raitt, Dixie Chicks, Steve Earle and the three Hanks as influences. Frontman Josh Copp goes so far list “pop-country” as his pet peeve on the band’s web site.
But if pop-country vexes Copp, it has radio advertisers downright giddy. Contemporary country radio is largely the creation of huge corporations. As a result, country music is a creation of those same corporations. A New York Times article from 2002 wrapped the connection up nicely: “If there’s one culprit in the current state of country music, it may be Crest Whitestrips. Yes, Crest Whitestrips, the new dental whitening system. Because when you point a finger at Crest Whitestrips, you’re pointing at Procter & Gamble, the product’s maker and one of the largest purchasers of radio advertising time. And the major advertisers are the people who really control what you hear on the radio, especially country radio.”
And who do the advertisers hope to reach? Young adult women. Apparently, they make 90 percent of the buying decisions in the average family home, including tooth bleaching products and county music.
So what does any of this have to do with Huckleberry Blue? Well, a lot. It has to do with integrity and a commitment to drilling a little deeper to find the purest source. The band – Copp on lead and acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and vocals; Anna Copp (Anna and Josh are married) on bass, mandolin and vocals; Sarah Marshall on keys and vocals; Brandon Marshall (also, married) on drums; Doug King on banjo, acoustic guitar and vocals; and the mysterious Johnny Morten (aka, Morty) on harmonica, bass and vocals “have chosen to steer clear of playing pop country at their live shows and in the studio. Their excellent eponymous CD, released last year, includes two covers among the eight (listed) originals. The two songs they chose to cover – ZZ Top’s “Tush” and Charlie Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy,” both done in zippy honky grass “balance well against the ballad of loves lost (“Change of Mind”), the springy fed up-ness of loves that need to get lost (“Little to Late”) and the up-by-the-bootstrap resilience it takes to navigate both (“Beyond Repair”).
The album is rough around the edges, but it’s supposed to be that way. Anything too polished would sound just like the stuff coming out of Nashville. The songs, written by Josh, Anna and Sarah, are well crafted and right in tune with what traditionalists are looking for. Songs about broken hearts nudge against odes to moonshine and teenage party girls. And, of course, there’s a murder thrown in for good measure.
Though together just over two years, Huckleberry Blue exude confidence and depth usually reserved for older bands (everyone but King is in their mid- to late-20s). With the exception of Anna Copp, each member of Huckleberry Blue has spent time in previous bands.
I sat down with Brandon Marshall at a coffee shop in Columbia City awhile back and got a fair piece of his history, as well as snippets of everyone else’s. It seems reticence is a trait a few of his bandmates share. For instance, Marshall told me that Morten, who has been with the band a year, is an alpaca and tree farmer. Oh, and that he is a rock n’ roller at heart “and that’s about it. Morten’s profile on the band’s website offers nothing, not even a photo. As for King, Marshall is not sure what he does for a living. Josh Copp is a hog farmer, handles the bulk of the bookings for the band and, along with Anna, is rearing their one-year-old son. Sarah Marshall works as an engineer and Brandon folds airbags for Ford vans at a factory. They also have two children.
Huckleberry Blue, in their present form, first got together when Josh, who attends church with Brandon and Sarah, called Brandon to sit in on the drums at a gig that day. After that, things gelled.
Marshall grew up around music. His father, Roger Marshall, headed up the 70s country outfit The Silver Dollar Band and spent time with Overland and The DeeJay Band. Recently the elder Marshall joined his two sons (the other being Jesse Marshall, formerly with Northern Kind, now living and drumming in Nashville) to form Roger Marshall & the Law. The band released a disc, 2005’s Hiding in the Wide Open, to critical acclaim. (Roger Marshall, incidentally, was the first person to record “Achy Breaky Heart.” But backing for the project pulled out and eventually opened the door for Billy Ray Cyrus to score big with the song.) Cancer in the 80s put Roger Marshall’s career on hold.
Brandon Marshall credits his father, grandfather (also a musician) and brother with instilling in him a love of traditional country music. It’s a love without shame for Marshall and his bandmates.
“It’s where we all came from,” he said. “The band was looking for a niche, stuff no one else does. We do no Top 40, and we occasionally catch song slack. A guy at the Post was blowing us [crap] while we were playing for not playing pop country. He was an older guy, and that’s where most of the slack comes from, the 40- and 50-year-olds.”
But Marshall said the bar owners love it because it brings in a younger crowd. “It’s always cool to go into a bar a see the young people digging it,” he said. “We do a lot of stuff from [the Johnny Cash biopic] Walk the Line and they just eat it up.”
The country scene in Fort Wayne is surprisingly small compared with the overall popularity of the genre. Only a few bars feature country as the main draw, so fans tend to pick one and stick with it. The Neon Armadillo has become the de facto home of Huckleberry Blue in the Fort. The clientele there recently voted Huckleberry Blue Best Band in a contest. Marshall said the limited venue options have been a hindrance to gaining a wider audience, so they also book gigs in Pierceton, Bloomington and Niles, Michigan.
“Fort Wayne’s just tough as far as the local country music scene goes,” he said. “It’s just tough. You gotta choose which bridges you want to burn.”