John Howie, Jr. has a voice that can’t be denied. His deep, resonant baritone was the focal point of his long-running band of honky-tonk revivalists, Two Dollar Pistols, lending the straightforward outfit an ace-in-the-hole with the versatility to lend somber gravity to a lonesome ballad or steer a drinkin’ song into rock ‘n’ roll abandon.
The band’s decade-plus career spawned three full-length albums and a collection of duets with alt-country chanteuse Tift Merritt for the N.C.-based Yep Roc Records, and another record (2007’s Here Tomorrow, Gone Today) for 8th House Records, a boutique imprint run by Howie and Snatches of Pink frontman Michael Rank.
After more than 10 years together, Two Dollar Pistols ran its course and hung up its 10-gallon hat in early 2008. But John Howie Jr.’s voice is still as strong as ever.
Enter John Howie Jr. & The Rosewood Bluff. Founded early in 2009, the Rosewood Bluff began as a collaboration between Howie and pedal-steel guitarist Nathan Golub. If Two Dollar Pistols reveled in its debt to Merle Haggard and Porter Wagoner, the Rosewood Bluff revels in its debt to Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers. More Bakersfield than Nashville, Howie’s latest project shouldn’t put off anybody who is familiar and fond of the Pistols catalog — the Pistols did know how to rock from time to time — but it embraces Golub’s pedal steel not as a vehicle of melancholy, but as a bright-shining melodic lead. In the Rosewood Bluff, pedal steel can do more than just whine and weep.
And coupled with Howie’s indefatigable baritone, his well-digested synthesis of influences and the still-strong knack for the just-right lyrical phrase to jerk a tear from the driest eye, Golub’s melodic foundation leads this new band — almost immediately — to the same high level that the Pistols spent a decade working toward.
The Two Dollar Pistols might be dearly departed, but the Rosewood Bluff suggests that Howie’s best years might still be ahead of him.