"I like cryptic stuff," says Don Howland. "I've always gravitated towards the obscure. And it's not just the obscurity of it I like. It's what makes it great, but still obscure. I don't think you lose the spirit of what makes rock and roll good when you stay obscure."
Don Howland has lived in Asheville for more than 10 years and has managed to keep his local obscurity intact. He was a resident for at least three years before he even played a show (at Vincent's Ear, of course) and didn't start an Asheville band until 2005. And he's never been featured in an article, or even a Smart Bet brief, in this publication.
And yet, Howland has been a known and respected musician and writer in underground rock 'n' roll for almost 25 years. His music, an often-unsettling combination of country blues and punk rock, is at times abrasive and at times lovely. His intense, often funny songs are full of strange, oblique imagery. And he usually sings about sex and death.
A cult figure's cult figure, he's released more than a dozen LPs and many more 7-inch singles under his own name and with his various bands. And, having recently passed 50, he remains committed to tending his unique creative path, recently recording a new album with his longtime group the Bassholes that sounds as uncompromising and contrary as anything he's ever done.
He's also preparing to reboot the all-local Burning Bush, with Doom Ribbons/Track Rabbits drummer James Owen and the Labiators/Suttree string section Chad McRorie, Christian Riel and Paul Parsons (late breaking news: Eric Hubner is filling in for an injury-sidelined Parsons).
Initially formed in 2005 to play Gonerfest in Memphis—and disbanded after playing only three gigs—Burning Bush is the largest band Howland's ever fronted. In its original incarnation, Burning Bush melded Howland's take on punk and blues with a more traditional rock-band format in a way that was musically explosive. But Howland seems even more excited about the band this time around.
"It's so much better than it was in 2005. Those guys have gotten really good. It's more honed—we took the best of what we did last time and went beyond that. I can't wait to record this band."
Burning Bush will play at the Admiral on June 14. The Admiral has shows infrequently, and space is always limited. Advance tickets will be available.
"I've been hooked on music for, like, 45 years," says Howland. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and is able to vividly recall many key musical events in his life. He was the perfect age when punk rock hit Cleveland in the late '70s, attending first-wave shows by bands like Pere Ubu. Then he discovered the country blues.
"That music was a revelation," Howland says. "I loved the lyrics. They're so surreal, but so American at the same time. That and mid- to late-'80s hip-hop was all I listened to for a long time."
Howland began singing blues songs with a local duo called the Gibson Brothers, eventually co-fronting the band with rockabilly performer Jeffrey Evans. The Gibson Brothers (whose lineup eventually included Jon Spencer) became known for their humor and ramshackle attitude. But when Evans moved to Memphis, Tenn., in the early '90s, Howland stayed in Ohio, making it too difficult to maintain the band. It was then he started the Bassholes.
Over the past 16 years, the Bassholes (primarily Howland and drummer Bim Thomas) have released more than a half a dozen albums of Howland's extremely personal take on the blues for a variety of labels, including In the Red and Matador. Many credit Howland with innovating the two-person blues-based punk-band format.
"There was no conscious thought about a two-piece band," says Howland. "It was just less hassle. The country blues showed the way, you just sit down and do it."
Howland moved to Asheville in 1998 with his family, but a series of personal catastrophes (chronicled, or at least referenced, on the harrowing 2002 solo album, The Land Beyond the Mountains) made the transition difficult. It took almost seven years of living in Asheville before his life stabilized enough to form a self-sustaining local band. Shortly after disbanding Burning Bush, Howland started Wooden Tit with Owen and bassist Eamon Martin.
"I was happy with Wooden Tit," says Howland. "It was lean. It was a kind of music I've always liked and wanted to be able to do."
Howland accepts his status as a musician who's playing for himself and a limited audience, and it's pretty easy to see that he will never stop.
"In Columbus, we always said we'd do it 'til we died. I just really love music," says Howland. "You could do a five-word article on me and just say that. My friends from high school have gone off and become lawyers, directors of alumni departments, and as soon as I heard that first Ramones album there was no way I was ever going to do that. Some people just don't fit in. And they need rock music."
Whitney Shroyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Burning Bush featuring Don Howland and members of Doom Ribbons, Suttree and El Hub
where: The Admiral, West Asheville
when: Sunday, June 14 (Advance tix available.)