Originally created 02/15/02

Ramblin' Rhodes: The Hushpuppies are something to howl about



The Hushpuppies have been working like dogs to get heard, but they remain one of the best unknown bands in Georgia.

It's not that they haven't been trying.

They have opened for the Swingin' Medallions at Jimmy's July Jam in Sparta, Ga.; played for wedding receptions and other parties; done their share of playing for charity events and have been working on the follow-up to their 2001 independent album, Songs From the Big House.

Jeff McDermott wrote in Creative Loafing magazine: "These guys aren't signed yet? I can't believe the folks at, say, Capricorn aren't all over this quartet. They really have all the elements -- a back-to-basics Southern boogie sound with lots of good, singalong choruses (plus the harmonies that really make such things work)."

The "Pups," as they call themselves, return to Augusta's Red Lion Pub on Saturday night with another band, Happy Bones.

Band members are Todd Cowart, who works for Metro Mortgage in Athens, Ga., and sings lead, plays guitar and writes most of the Pups' original songs; Mitch Barefield, who works for Quickset in Waynesboro, Ga., and plays bass guitar; Matt Thomas, who works for Viracon in Statesboro, Ga., and plays lead guitar; and Cary Cooper, who works for Delta Pest Control in Waynesboro and plays drums.

"We started the Hushpuppies for real in 1998," said Mr. Cowart, "although the name itself first appeared in 1997 when some of us came together for a benefit. We don't want to label our music, but the themes are definitely of rural origin."

Mr. Cowart grew up on a farm south of Millen on Georgia Highway 121, a couple of miles from its junction with U.S. Highway 25. The band uses a ramshackle farmhouse near Mr. Cowart's childhood home as a rehearsal "studio." It is seen on the cover of the Songs From the Big House CD.

Among Mr. Cowart's early show-business influences was Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl, who visited his school in 1977 when he was in the second or third grade. He recalled, "I'll never forget the tag on her hat and that How-deeeee! Charisma plus."

Hearing Texas rocker/songwriter Robert Earl Keen for the first time was a pivotal point in Mr. Cowart's musical development.

"I never knew my vision had a genre until I heard (Mr. Keen's album) Gringo Honeymoon. It changed my life."

Another songwriter/singer Mr. Cowart admires is Aiken-born country star John Berry, who got started in some of the same Athens nightclubs that Mr. Cowart later played.

  The Hushpuppies
Songs from the Big House
"Running Free"
  FORMATS

"I used to finish my gig about 2 a.m. at a basement nightclub in Athens where it was so hot you could barely breathe," he said. "The (cigarette) smoke was so thick I couldn't see the first row. It was like the tear gas training room on a Marine base or something. I would eat at the Waffle House afterward, and I remember seeing John Berry answering questions like, 'Ain't you that guy that sings?' He always was very gracious and nice to everyone."

Mr. Cowart hopes he and the other Pups can achieve just some of the fame Mr. Berry and Mr. Keen have enjoyed.

"I tell the guys all the time that I'd like to be a REK or Charlie Robison, or someone who is just known enough to make a living playing music. That's my dream. To make a difference is another. Those are two things I'm proud of about this band: charity work and setting a good example."

GEORGIA BLUES: The Georgia Music Hall of Fame, 200 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Macon, has opened an exhibit paying homage to Georgia blues artists.

Accompanying the exhibit, which will remain on display through June 2, is the compact disc Blues Came To Georgia, featuring 12 Peach State blues artists. The CD costs $16.98 plus $3 shipping. Call (888) GA-ROCKS, toll-free, to order.

SOUND BYTE: To hear Running Free off the Hushpuppies album Songs From the Big House, call INFOLINE at 442-4444 and punch 8101. Callers outside Georgia must dial 803 area code.

Don Rhodes has been writing about country music for 31 years.