THE SPANIC BOYS are a pair of pudgy guys from Milwaukee with greased-back hair and thick glasses. Tom Spanic has been playing hot rockabilly guitar since it was a new sound in the '50s -- so long, in fact, that his son Ian now co-leads the Spanic Boys.
Their spiritual cousin is Chris Gaffney, a wiry guy from L.A. with a weather-beaten face and a receding hairline. For 10 years now, Gaffney has devoted every spare moment -- when he hasn't been working in the shipyards -- to playing honky-tonk and Tex-Mex.
The Spanic Boys and Gaffney are the least likely rock 'n' roll heroes of 1990, but they have nonetheless created two of the best rock 'n' roll albums of the year. They recognize that the essential qualities of American music are timeless; the same things that made those Everly Brothers and Lefty Frizzell records so great 30 years ago are the same things that make great records today. And the Spanic Boys and Gaffney aren't the only modern-day roots rockers who've caught on to that insight.
The Spanic Boys "Spanic Boys" (Rounder Records). Established rock 'n' rollers such as Eddie Levert and Carl Perkins have recorded late in their careers with their sons, but the Spanic Boys are the first rock 'n' roll band I know of conceived as a father-and-son act. Novelty value aside, "Spanic Boys" is a wonderful roots-rock album, full of memorable originals -- 11 written by Ian and three by his dad Tom. Dad and Junior toss catchy Telecaster guitar hooks back and forth and join together on aching country duet vocals. The songs range from Tom's rockabilly raver about busting loose from the "Living Hell" of a stale relationship to Ian's keening honky-tonk yearning for a "Promised Land." Overall the effect resembles the Creedence/Everly classicism of the Spanics' fellow Wisconsinites, the BoDeans.
Chris Gaffney "The Cold Hard Facts" (Rom Records, P.O. Box 491212; Los Angeles, CA 90049). Gaffney wrote this album's first single, the comic "Lift Your Leg," and ex-Blaster Dave Alvin plays a chunky guitar riff, but the song still sounds like a classic bit of George Jones honky-tonk. That pretty much defines the album: original songs worthy of George Jones played with the hard-rocking edge of the Blasters. It's a formula that recalls Dwight Yoakum, and if Gaffney's not quite the singer that Yoakum is, he's a better songwriter with more humor and irony. When Gaffney trades his guitar for an accordion, he delivers some of the best English-language Tex-Mex music this side of Los Lobos.
The Flat Duo Jets "Flat Duo Jets" (Dog Gone Records, P.O. Box 1742, Athens, GA 30603). This album was recorded direct to two-track during four days in a converted transmission shop in Georgia. It features old rockabilly, big band and R&B songs so obscure that the record company couldn't track down all the songwriting credits. The North Carolina trio consists of a lead singer named Dexter Romweber, "Crow" on drums and "Tone" on bass. It all sounds too cute and calculated to work, but it does. The rhythm section swings, even as it twitches with excitement, and Romweber is the real thing, a 23-year-old baritone with the vocal power and command to deserve the comparisons to a young Elvis Presley.
Steve Wayne Horton "Steve Wayne Horton" (Capitol). This was released as a mainstream country album late last year and promptly got buried. It turns out to be an overlooked Memphis rockabilly gem. Horton, Memphis born and raised, is a strong, strutting singer with a rockabilly hiccup. John Hiatt, Steve Cropper and the Burnette brothers -- Billy and Rocky -- provide the solid material; producer Jack Holder and pianist Jim Dickinson provide the authentic Memphis blue-eyed soul. There's even a version of Elvis Presley's never-released movie track, "Got a Lot of Livin' to Do." The result sounds a lot like Presley's early soundtracks, when he was still getting good songs and still cared.