YEAR AFTER YEAR, the young people who arrive on Capitol Hill learn a simple mantra: "It's not just what you know, it's whom you know." You see them networking at bars and receptions, trading and saving business cards like baseball cards because -- well, you never know.
Of course, this doesn't just work for aspiring politicos and powerbrokers. Just ask the Wil Gravatt Band, a pedal-steel-driven country band whose well-placed fans helped it move from Virginia honky-tonks to the presidential campaign trail and a pair of inaugural balls.
Country musician Wil Gravatt and his band made a name for themselves on the Republican campaign trail in 2004. They now have a regular Thursday night gig at Arlington's Music Box.
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
When the Wil Gravatt Band became the Thursday night house band at Whitey's, the much-loved Arlington dive bar, in 1999, singer-guitarist Gravatt began working more songs like Jimmie Rodgers's "T for Texas" and Willie Nelson's "Whiskey River" into the set lists.
"My dad listened to a lot of [country] growing up, but I was never really a fan of the older stuff or the newer country," Gravatt explains. "Then I took a trip to Nashville and heard a lot of it in clubs and honky-tonks." He fell in love with the sound, and as the band's focus began to change, so did the crowds. "We started out playing with maybe 10 people, and then word got out there was a band playing traditional country music there."
Many of the folks turning up were homesick Texans or westerners who had moved to Washington to work on the Hill as chiefs of staff, legislative assistants or lobbyists. They'd show up, drink long-necks and two-step the night away to Gravatt covers of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. And when their bosses needed entertainment for a fundraiser or a party, they began to call Gravatt.
"The first one was for Senator Mike Enzi [R-Wyo.]," Gravatt says. "It was cool for me. Vice President Cheney was there. [Sen.] Trent Lott [R-Miss.] was there. I was a little Republican star-struck."
The band played at events for former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich and "Boot Scoot Boogie" parties thrown by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) -- "every two years," Gravatt says.
Even when Whitey's closed in 2003, the band kept busy, playing clubs such as JV's and the Birchmere and keeping up their regular appearances at Capitol Hill functions, ensuring the group wouldn't be forgotten.
Fort Worth native Michael Crain first heard the band at Whitey's. "A lot of people from Texas and the south used to go see him," Crain says. "Being from Texas, you always look for something that reminds you of home, brings something back. That's what Wil does -- he plays real country music.
"Honestly, the first time I met him, I thought he was from Texas."
Last fall, Crain served as a director of operations for the Republican National Committee, charged with booking entertainment for President Bush's reelection campaign. He invited the Wil Gravatt Band. "I knew he'd done some parties for us, like Taste of the South, and he supports the president. And they're a fun band that you'd want at your party."
The band eagerly joined the campaign as the president's opening act, performing at a dozen rallies, including a concert in front of "60,000 screaming Republicans" at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. "That was probably the most nervous I'd ever been [before a show]," Gravatt says.
Praise from the campaign led to a slot at the Republicans' official election-night party at the Ronald Reagan Building, where the band kept performing until the wee hours of the morning because Ohio remained too close to call. A month later, the band was invited to two inaugural parties -- the Texas State Society's Black Tie and Boots Ball and the official Commander-in-Chief Ball.
By now, you've probably figured out that Gravatt wasn't a John Kerry voter.