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Desert Survivor 

Creosote perseveres, even if it can't drum up steady personnel.

In a recent interview with Upstairs Film's Mike Toubassi, who is working on an extensive documentary about the last 20 years of the Tucson music scene, Shoebomb's Melissa Manas was asked the same question that countless others had already been asked to end their on-screen interviews: If you were the one making this movie, what would you title it? Manas' answer: Hey, Can I Borrow Your Drummer?

While Tucson is home to some of the finest drummers playing today, there is a mere handful of them, and most have their hands full serving in multiple bands at any given time. Local self-described "American music" band Creosote has experienced the drummer problem firsthand. And the bassist problem. And the pedal steel player problem. And the "difficult recording session" problem.

But while many bands would have taken the setbacks as a sign to throw in the dustrag, Creosote has bucked the odds every step of the way, ultimately proving Nietzsche correct: That which hasn't killed it, has only made it stronger.

Taking cues from Americana revivalist Uncle Tupelo and its offshoots Wilco and Son Volt, which combined traditional roots music with a post-punk sensibility, singer/guitarist/primary songwriter Jason Steed, a veteran of numerous and wildly varied other local bands including Celtic punks The Host, the Zsa Zsas and Dog and Pony Show, originally envisioned Creosote as a sort of hepped-up bluegrass outfit with drums. ("Any bluegrass aficionado will tell you [drums] automatically makes it not a bluegrass band. And there was still that underlying alt-rock thing that we had going on.") Steed decided to start the band in 1997, following a couple of inspiring cross-country road trips that came just as Dog and Pony Show was meeting with a messy demise. Tired of relying on frontmen who were quick to shirk the responsibilities that came with the job, Steed decided to do it himself. "I think I just started saying to people, 'I'm gonna start my own damn band.' In my mind it was half-true at that point, but I was starting to write stuff."

Steed found a willing partner in guitarist and banjo player Mike Ahern, and the two later recruited Greyhound Soul leader Joe Peña on bass, and reluctant (then primarily slide-) guitarist and Steed's best friend, Larry Vance, who initially joined up more out of doing his friend a favor than anything ("Larry was adamant about not wanting to be in a band at that point"). That lineup lasted only one gig, an appearance at a Wooden Ball. Peña didn't have the time to commit due to his obligations in Greyhound, and current Fourkiller Flats singer/guitarist Jim Cox took over the bass slot. Around the same time, drummer Timo was recruited.

That roster remained intact for a relatively extended spell, long enough to record a four-song EP and play a party gig in Austin during South by Southwest, which helped garner a nationwide fan base.

Eventually, Ahern left town for a job in New Orleans ("That was huge 'cause all of a sudden the banjo was gone and it was a huge part of our sound"), and Cox was summarily given the boot after he disappeared on a weeklong bender ("As big a part of starting the band as he was, I don't think he knew what he was doing at that point. I hope I didn't dis Jim, 'cause I didn't take his deal personally. I knew he was going through some stuff and he needed to deal with it. I was just hoping he was getting better and getting happy.")

Greyhound Soul bassist Duane Hollis took over on bass for a while ("He really bent over backwards for us in a lot of ways"), and Topless Opry's Tim Gallagher filled out the sound on pedal steel, while Vance took over lead guitar duties. That configuration lent itself to a more rock version of the Creosote sound--"a rock band with a twang," in Steed's words, and that period is aptly summed up on the 11-song album Blacksmoke, available for download at creosotemusic.com, and which will be available in an abbreviated version--whittled down to eight songs to aid the flow--for purchase on CD at the band's upcoming shows.

Though the band isn't fully happy with the record, which was recorded at Wavelab and features guest appearances from several previous Creosote members, as well as fiddler Phil Stevens (Topless Opry, the Zsa Zsas) and bassist Joey Burns (Calexico, Giant Sand), the casual fan will find little to dislike. Highlights include the Mellencamp-inspired heartland rocker "Hardly Can Remember," which closes with a nod to Bryan Adams by referring to "Summer of '79"; "(I Made a Wish upon a) Satellite," a delectable little banjo-flecked, melancholy shuffle; "Witchita Saints," a whisper of an ode to a college radio station discovered on one of those aforementioned road trips; and the hypnotically atmospheric "Jericho," from which the album's title is drawn.

The stars here are the guitar work, in which Vance's sinewy leads and Gallagher's spot-on pedal steel provide sublime backing for the other high point, the songs themselves. Steed is a songwriter's songwriter, and he tends to leave the subtleties to the other players. "The way I structure songs is pretty rudimentary when it comes right down to it," he says. "I'm not a player's player as far as guitar is concerned, so I think that everything I have to say, emotion-wise, is gonna come lyrically."

Just as things finally seemed to be gelling once again, Gallagher and Hollis left the fold to concentrate on Topless Opry and Greyhound Soul, respectively, and Timo had to split due to a lack of time to commit to the band, though he still graciously fills the drum stool as needed, until a new drummer is found. Patrick Forsythe was recruited for the bass position after Steed met him at a barbecue: "He was wearing a cowboy hat and combat boots, and he had hair down to his ass like Duane did, so I said, 'Hey dude, you play the bass?' He goes, 'Yeah, I do.' I had no idea he even played bass. So I said, 'Wanna be in a band?' and he said, 'Sure.' And that's exactly how that happened, pretty close to verbatim."

If only finding a drummer could be so easy. The band spent a few months earlier this year with recent Athens, Ga. transplant Tom King, who had previously played in Love Tractor, but after King got married he found he simply didn't have the time to do everything he wanted, begrudgingly leaving the band in the lurch once again.

So the band is again down to core members Steed, Vance and Forsythe, who remain vigilant, dedicated to the Creosote sound.

"I've wanted to quit so many times, but I can't. I can't stop it," says Steed. "I'd like for there to be some cohesion again. I'd like everyone in the band to be focused on the band, and we had a spark of that with Tom. I gotta think that every band I've ever really dug stuck to their guns in one form or another."

As does Creosote, even if, after four-plus years of looking, it still hasn't nailed down that elusive drummer. Steed, only half-joking, announces, "If anyone out there reading this wants to play drums for us, then send us an e-mail."

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