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A Twang of Irony

The Hoyle Brothers despised mainstream country culture--and would denounce it loudly to anyone within earshot. Then Nashville came a-callin'.



As they wandered the hallways of Country Music Television's Nashville headquarters, the Hoyle Brothers couldn't help but think of that scene in Spinal Tap, the one where the band gets lost on its way to the stage. When they did eventually find a receptionist, they had to wait for her to finish a lengthy personal call on her cell phone. After she hung up, front man Jacque Judy stated the name of the band and explained they were there for the video shoot.

"The Whaaaale Brothers?" the receptionist asked in a slow drawl.

No, Judy said. The Hoyle Brothers.

"The Whaaaale Brothers?"

It was a wry moment for the band, which has spent its career casting itself as anti-Nashville. "The Hoyle Brothers are the real future of country music," boast the liner notes of their 2004 debut album, Back to the Door (Loose Booty). "And if you think that mantle belongs to Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, or Toby Keith, then you've obviously swallowed Nashville's airbrushed, pretty-face, overproduced, tummy-pierced party line of pap." Of course back then the band never figured on being asked to shoot promos for CMT in the belly of the beast.

Growing up in DeKalb in the late 70s and early 80s, Judy got his schooling in country music from his father and WMAQ AM, which was then a country station. In the late 80s he began playing in Chicago country-rock bands like Slingshot and J-200. But he wanted to start a band whose sound was closer to that of his 50s and 60s idols, like George Jones and Merle Haggard. "Real country stuff is not afraid to be a little more blunt," he says.

Judy's impatience intensified in the summer of 2001, when J-200 was recording its second album in Austin, Texas. During a break he went to the Continental Club to check out Heybale!, a band fronted by Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert. "I was aggravated with [the other members of J-200] because they were just aggravating people," he says. "And I decided that I was going to walk across the street and have a beer and see Redd Volkaert. And I sat down, and within five minutes every hair on my body was standing straight up." He was electrified by what he called the show's "old-timey Texas dance-hall" vibe--the hard honky-tonk sound, the dancing, the sense of camaraderie between the band members and the crowd.

Judy began assembling the Hoyle Brothers early the next year. Steve Doyle, who became the group's lead guitarist, had played briefly in J-200; Doyle recommended pedal steel player Brian Wilke, a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music who's worked as a session man in Nashville. Bassist Josh Piet and drummer Lance Helgeson also briefly played in J-200, which would finally break up in early 2003. The Hoyle Brothers' lineup has remained the same since their first rehearsal.

In July 2002 they began playing a regular Friday-night slot at the Hideout; it moved to the Empty Bottle that December. The group became a fixture there and in January 2004 started playing on Sunday afternoons as well. Bringing the band to the Bottle "just seemed like a cool thing to do," says the club's owner, Bruce Finkelman. "We are sometimes overlooked for [country], and I knew we would reach a different clientele." According to Finkelman, an average Hoyle Brothers show draws about 150 people, a mix of country fans, rock fans, and homesick southerners.

In October, following the release of Back to the Door, the band went on a ten-city tour of the south and midwest. With no label behind them and not much publicity in front of them, shows were sparsely attended, but one of the people who caught their gig at the 5 Spot in Nashville was Craig Shelburne, a content producer for Country Music Television's Web site. He was there to see a friend perform but decided to stick around for the Hoyle Brothers after hearing their sound check. "I was caught completely off guard because it was a fully formed country band . . . they sounded perfect," he says. "It's hard to find new bands that sing straight-up honky-tonk."

He decided to write up the band for New Voices No Cover, a section of CMT's site dedicated to up-and-coming roots and country acts. Past profiles have included former Whiskeytown member Caitlin Cary and the Greencards, a bluegrass outfit that opened for Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan this summer. Band pages on New Voices No Cover are good promotion; according to Shelburne, the profiles usually get about 10,000 hits during the first three weeks they're online. Shelburne asked the Hoyle Brothers to come down to Nashville in January to shoot four videos for the site--no-frills tapings of them playing at CMT's offices--but he wasn't at all sure they'd respond. He'd read the liner notes. "I thought they might think, 'No way--we don't like that corporate country sound.'"

The band already had an inkling that the notes, which Helgeson wrote, might bum out some of their fans. Shortly before they released Back to the Door they met with Felicia Vreeland, co-owner of Austin-based Vreeland Graphics, which prints T-shirts and hats for the band. "You're giving people a reason not to like you," Vreeland said after she looked at the CD. It was too late to do anything about the booklet, but she persuaded the band to remove a version of the commentary from its Web site.

The Hoyle Brothers didn't spend much time deliberating over the offer from CMT--they decided that they'd been invited to play their tunes about cheating and drinking and trucking on their own terms. "They were asking us on the basis of our music," says Helgeson. The band still takes shots at pop country performers onstage--Judy devotes a portion of each show to a spoken-word bit that ends with him insulting whatever hat act is pissing him off that day. "As long as I'm in the band, I'd like it to reflect a bit of my personality," he says, a slight edge in his voice. But their criticisms are now aimed at individual artists instead of the whole Nashville scene, Doyle says.

A few weeks after their New Voices No Cover profile appeared, the Hoyles were approached by Sally Williams, an event manager at the Grand Ole Opry. She asked if they'd be interested in appearing at the Opry's summer series of free shows, which pairs newcomers with more established acts--in the Hoyles' case, Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. Playing just outside the main entrance to the Opry, the band would have an audience made up of some 4,000 country fans arriving for the main show inside. The band accepted.

They've warmed up to the idea that their music makes rhetoric unnecessary. "Some of the loudest words you can speak are the ones you never say," Judy says.

Whatever, says Doyle. "It's not like we're now singing songs about what we want for Christmas."

Hoyle Brothers

When: Fridays 5:30 PM, Sundays 4 PM

Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

Price: Donation requested

Info: 773-276-3000 or 866-468-3401 or

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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