Big Sandy is Still Swinging After All These Years

Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys swing into Pearl Street Warehouse on Nov. 17. (Photo: LACE Photography)

It’s been 30 years since Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys started out as a hardcore rockabilly band. Since then they have broadened their repertoire to include country, boogie-woogie and Western Swing – with the emphasis on the swing. In fact, about the only time Big Sandy isn’t swinging hard is when he channels Elvis Presley or another teen heartthrob on a ballad.

Sandy didn’t set out to defy the “Rockabilly Police” – purists who resist new songs and sounds. He simply followed his instincts as a songwriter.

“I don’t think or write a certain way anymore,” said Sandy, who brings the current version of the Fly-Rite Boys to Pearl Street Warehouse on Nov. 17. “It just comes out the way it does.”

Big Sandy, whose given name is Robert Williams, wrote most of the songs on the band’s 14 records, including the most recent, What a Dream It’s Been. That album revisits songs the band had previously released, and presents them with a more acoustic, stripped-down approach. The results prove conclusively that music doesn’t have to be too loud or fast to make you tap your feet. The title track swings slyly like Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, while “My Sinful Days are Over” is a showcase for guitarist Ashley Kingman, a Fly-Rite Boy since 1993.

Over three decades of touring and recording, the Fly-Rite Boys have racked up some solid accomplishments, including late-night TV shows and induction to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. And they’ve won new fans while maintaining the loyalty of their older listeners. If a few rockabilly fanatics find them too contemporary, Sandy said, “to most of the general public we’re ultra-traditional.

“Some of the kids who used to see us are coming back now, their own kids are grown and out of the house. And … a lot of young people are discovering a new passion for American roots music.”

Tinsley Ellis at City Winery
As a teenager, Tinsley Ellis idolized the old bluesmen of the day, as well as rock guitar heroes like Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band.

He wound up sharing a stage with many of them, in a career that has bridged rock and blues.

Ellis has played with bluesmen like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and James Cotton, as well as rockers such as Dicky Betts and Derek Trucks. He’ll share the bill with Tommy Castro and the Painkillers at City Winery on Nov. 18.

After releasing his last several records himself, Ellis returned this year to Alligator Records, his previous label and the preeminent blues brand. His newest album, Winning Hand, entered the Billboard blues chart at Number One.

The record is a reminder that Ellis is one of the finest blues rock guitarists in the world today, as well as a powerful blues singer. One of the tastiest tracks is “Gambling Man,” evokes the vocal and guitar style of Albert King.

For decades, Ellis played 250 shows a year. Nowadays there are fewer performances but some are international dates, so he’s still on the road at least 200 days. On a recent off day, he posted a picture of a guitar and amplifier on Instagram with the caption, “woodshedding.”

“Anything I have gotten, I’ve got from working,” he said. “With any kind of roots music, you never really get the giant market share – you’re always bubbling under. But there’s beauty in the lack of pressure. We’re just trying to be good.”


Charles Walston plays and sings in The Truck Farmers, who will perform at Mr. Henry’s on Nov. 29.