With hair slicked back and plaid western shirts tucked behind leather belt buckles, Adam Lee and Johnny Kenepaske are a couple of dapper-looking dudes. Under stage lights — or in the corner of a living room, depending on the gig — with guitars strapped on, stomping out one of their homespun honky-tonk tunes, their two-man band, Adam Lee and the Dead Horse Sound Company, radiates classic blue-collar charisma.
His long face, heavy-lidded eyes and hair black enough for a unicorn to get lost in make Lee look as though he stepped out of the cover design of an old country record. Shorter and broader, with a slightly flattened nose and an up-to-some-mischief look, Kenepaske resembles Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line.
But one night last year, at a certain roadhouse in Bevier, Missouri, the duo's tidy appearance conveyed a stranger, more primal significance.
"Before the show, this kid said to us, 'Well, you guys must be pretty good 'cause you don't got too many scars,'" Kenepaske says. "We were like, 'Ha, he's joking,' but then this other guy said the exact same thing to us later."
Lee and Kenepaske didn't leave that roadhouse with any new scars, but it still wasn't the type of gig most touring bands play. First, the owner expected them to entertain the crowd for four hours. Lee and Kenepaske pulled out a notebook and began scribbling down every song they at least knew the chorus to.
It turned out not to matter because, after listening to the band's first hour of material, the owner decided it was karaoke time. Lee and Kenepaske still got paid but they had to get up and sing with everyone else first. Later, at an afterparty, someone threw a beer can at Lee for talking to the only single woman there; otherwise, the good folks of Bevier treated their visitors with courtesy.
Since forming in 2006 in Phoenix, Arizona, Adam Lee and the Dead Horse Sound Company has maintained a policy of touring as much as possible, playing wherever people like to drink and have a good time and sleeping on floors afterward.
"The stories aren't in the hotel rooms," Lee says.
They met through a Craigslist ad. A native of Independence, Missouri, Kenepaske had moved to Arizona in 2003 to study at the Conservatory of the Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe. He played bass for a moderately successful indie-pop band called Skybox but stayed behind when the group relocated to Chicago.
Lee had moved to Phoenix in '06 to be with his then girlfriend. He originally had gotten into music as a punk drummer but had begun writing his own songs in an alt-country vein. Both Lee and Kenepaske were playing with other musicians and looking to start a complete band (hence the want ad). As the other players fell away, their fate as a duo was sealed.
After moving to Kansas City in early 2008, the two began refining a more old-timey sound. With Kenepaske at the engineering helm and Lee as the songwriter, they banged out their debut album, Ghostly Fires, which features Wilders fiddler Betse Ellis and local pedal-steel wizard Darryl Logue. And then they hit the road, playing more out-of-town shows that year than many local bands do in their whole careers.
Lee and Kenepaske picked up a mentor early on in ex-Pendergast frontman Tony Ladesich, whom they contacted through MySpace. Ladesich ended up loaning equipment, giving advice and designing their album's artwork (as well as suggesting its title). He says he was blown away from the get-go by the band's songs and innocent enthusiasm.
"It's not an aw shucks act. It's totally, genuinely the way they are," Ladesich tells me. "And I think it's in part because Adam doesn't realize how good he is."
Ladesich is right — Ghostly Fires is fantastic.
The twangy opener, "Southern Railroad Co.," is about going on a picaresque cross-country train journey and drinking a lot along the way. It's easy to picture a young, drunk Paul Newman hanging off the side of a locomotive in some '60s Western while the song chugs along.
What makes Fires so compelling is the way it builds bridges between classic and new styles. Bluegrass rambler "Whiskey Wheels" is chased by the Uncle Tupelo-flavored pedal-steel ballad "Lies & Patience." The rockabilly reverb on "Ebru, KY" is offset by the quiet, introspective "Military Man," in which Lee touches on his relationship with his father.
The album's sonic elegance is a country mile — or three — from the hard-drinkin', party-startin' live persona of Adam Lee and the Dead Horse Sound Company. And that's precisely why, if there's any justice in the universe, the good people of Bevier, Missouri, will one day be singing their songs on karaoke night.