"When we left a few days earlier, heading east, weather forecasters were predicting that the storm would hit near Jacksonville," says West, who occasionally sends air whistling through his front teeth when he talks, imbuing his words with hillbilly flair. "I was worried about losing our gigs, not our home."
West and Euliss, who now reside in a quiet North Lawrence neighborhood, make up the scrappy country duo Truckstop Honeymoon. They're former buskers, a couple of aging-hippie types who met pounding out tunes for a plate of jambalaya in the French Quarter. Four years ago, they fell hot as 15-year-olds for each other, and in a move befitting their rugged style, they honeymooned at a swampy truck stop near Lafayette that sported a caged tiger in the parking lot. "I parked the car under a floodlight," West recalls "'cause we were a little scared of that place."
The documentary Won't Let the Angels Take You Away featured Truckstop Honeymoon. Here's a clip:
It's safe to say that West and Euliss are used to sharp edges and coarse thrills. They've hewn solid musical careers, no matter how battered it's left them.
Like so many Katrina victims, they were disgusted with the government's response. Hunkered down with their two children for a couple of days with friends in Baton Rouge, Euliss and West grew impatient. Residents weren't being permitted back into the city. Weeks trudged by. Finally, West took matters into his own hands. He forged a press pass and began tramping around gutted buildings and vehicles half-buried in cracked earth, eventually sneaking into the family's old neighborhood and back to The Ninth Ward Pickin' Parlor, the recording studio he founded in 1996. He prepared himself for the worst.
"It was all gone," he says flatly. "The house, the equipment, everything all ruined."
Faced with the loss they managed to rescue a few photos and trinkets from the mud the pair decided it was time to start over.
Enter Kirk Rundstrom. With the help of their friend and fellow musician, who put up Euliss and West at his pad in Wichita, the Honeymoon was able to transplant its twang to Lawrence. And because all of the studio equipment was covered by insurance "thank God," West says the Pickin' Parlor moved with them, leaving its namesake for the greener, unflooded pastures of northeast Kansas.
So far, the move has been sweet and easy, as sudden displacements go. "We like the river. We like our neighbors. We like the clubs," West says, ticking them off like items on a shopping list. "And we like all the quirky punk rockers who have taken to banjo playing. I don't know what our niche is, but I'm grateful to the town for taking us in."
And the town's music scene has cottoned quite nicely to Truckstop Honeymoon and the refurbished Pickin' Parlor. "We're producing 10 albums a year now," West says no small feat considering that the band tours coast-to-coast, parents a duo of squirmy tots, and writes and records its own music full time.
Modest but functional, the Pickin' Parlor's new home is in the attic of the creaky, cozy house that Euliss and West inhabit up past the children's rooms, decked out with toy dinosaurs, dolls, puzzles and mobiles, and up a final narrow staircase. The finished, soundproofed attic is somewhat cramped because of the gabled ceilings. Backpacks, music stands, microphones, cords and at least three mattresses litter the carpeted floor. "We work for a lot of talented, broke people, so we throw down some beds in the playing room, and at 10 a.m. they roll out of bed and start pickin'," West says.
Usually, bands hammer out and then refine and polish their tracks until 6 p.m. daily for at least a week. It can be a grueling, nitpicky process, with West offering soft-spoken, hard-hitting advice like a guru. "My theory is that these bands are paying for my time, not just the studio space," West says. "I'm a guide, someone they can trust to pull all they got out of 'em and get it on a record."
West's expertise and business acumen have paid off. People fork over the cash for his time, and after less than two years in Lawrence, the Pickin' Parlor is pulsing with clientele like the Dewayn Brothers and GC/DC. "We've worked with Fast Food Junkies, Split Lip [Rayfield], Casey Rauch, the list goes on. And we don't advertise. It's all word-of-mouth," West says.
In the meantime, Euliss and West have squeezed out a day here and there over the past two years to put together a new album of their own. As on their three previous albums, Truckstop hauls off with another group of boisterous, narrative-driven tunes that address the bills, spills and bullshit facing regular folks. But unlike the second and third ventures Truckstop Honeymoon (2003) and Christmas in Ocala (2004) Diamonds in the Asphalt finds the band evolving away from a strictly traditional country sound, injecting horns, swing and a touch of blues. In other words, a dose of New Orleans.
"It's probably our most New Orleans-influenced record, and it was all recorded in Kansas," West says.
Whether it's a way of processing or a form of nostalgia, the presence of so much New Orleans flavor might be misleading. After all, Euliss and West feel very much at home in their adopted state. "Sometimes we hear the kids playing flood role-playing games," West says. But still, Euliss adds, "This house has soaked 'em in like old wood does to oil. They love it here."
These days, West and Euliss are parents first, musicians second something the new album reflects, with songs that spout about "wiping ass," schlepping the kids to museums and zoos, and sorting piles of laundry. The two have been parents long enough to know that disaster hurricanes or extra-poopy diapers can strike at any time.
Like, suppose their daughter grows up and wants to start busking on the street?
Euliss looks uncomfortable but shoots a smile at West, who grins back.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," West says.
And really, is there any other way?