The Fourth of July turns Upcountry Maui into a paniolo party, and this upcoming holiday is no exception as Makawao town celebrates 60 years of its very own rodeo and parade. The Stopwatch will kick off festivities with a Wednesday night performance from Miss Devon and the Outlaw. We chased them down in the middle of their West Coast tour to give us some tips on their upcoming Maui shows and why everyone should wear palaka.
MAUITIME: You say that you play “Western swing music.” What does that mean?
MISS DEVON: Western swing is a fusion of musical styles that could only have happened in Texas and Oklahoma. It developed during the Depression and Dust Bowl era, and mixes swing with the blues, adds in Chicago and New Orleans jazz influences, Mexican mariachi styles, fiddles in twin and trio harmonies, Celtic fiddle styles seen in the breakdowns and jigs and a dash of Hollywood. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys are perhaps the most famous names developing the genre, first locally in Texas and Oklahoma, then moving west to California with the lure of making movies for Columbia Pictures. Simultaneously, the Dust Bowl refugees migrated to the West Coast, bringing the music with them. And it eventually went around the world with GIs during World War II.
MT: Who influenced you as an artist?
MD: My father was the late Phil Ryan, a professional jazz/swing guitarist, singer, songwriter, sideman and bandleader. I grew up with his music–American songbook and Western swing–and I always loved it. I had nothing in common musically with my own generation, and never regretted it. To me, a great song has to have a patina of about 80 years on it… or sound like it does! My first crush was on Bing Crosby–my heart raced when I heard the “Sons of the Pioneers.” I wanted to sing like Ella, play rhythm like Django and I could not sit still when a Bob Wills record was playing.
MT: Did you always know music was your niche?
MD: Dad gave me my first guitar when I was nine, and by age 11, he figured my hands were big enough to manage a six-string. It was an electric guitar, with a fast neck, which eased the transition for my little hands, but I proved to be a rhythm player who quickly gravitated to the glories of the acoustic dreadnaught. He was my teacher, and my folks were pretty gratified to see how I took to it. I clearly remember he told me one day, “If you really like doing this, I will teach you to play rhythm guitar like a man!” By age 13, I was Dad’s sideman on stages around Corpus Christi–my sister was on drums, we all sang, and the trio was called “The Ryan Sisters Plus One.” There is nothing like regular, professional band work onstage to accelerate stage craft, so those were challenging, but wonderful years. I performed with Dad until my marriage to Chuck Dawson at age 18.
In elementary school, I was a good student and especially loved geography since I was seeing half of the United States regularly with my traveling musician family, attending an average of three schools per year, in totally different parts of the country. I once had a rare argument with a fifth grade teacher–I was living in El Paso at the time–when I insisted that I was going to be a musician when I grew up. She remonstrated, “No, you think that you’re going to be a musician” I retorted “No I know, I’m going to be a musician.” Never did like that teacher…
MT: You and your father have an interesting connection with Hawaii. Tell us more…
MD: In the early ‘70s, my dad was in Ernie Menehune’s Polynesian Revue, which toured the mainland, based out of Tucson, Arizona. Ernie was brother to Larry Rivera, the showman of Coco Palms, and the brothers hailed from Kekaha, Kauai. Through this association, I became entranced with Hawaiian music, and have developed that appreciation over the years, with trips to the islands and availing myself of chances to see Brothers Cazimero, Irmgaard Aluli (Puamana), Larry Rivera, Danny Kaleikini and collecting recordings of Gabby, Makaha Sons, Genoa Keawe and Alfred Apaka. Music has always been the lynch pin of any trip I plan to the islands, so I got to thinking about writing a song about the ubiquitous fabric of Hawaiian life–palaka–the cotton plaid workshirts that every worker wore on the plantations. “Palaka” came together, and we recorded and released it on the air in Hawaii first, in mid-June 2015. I hope to see plenty of fans turn out to our shows wearing every color of palaka, as we bring our own brand of Texas aloha.
MT: When did The Outlaw come in the picture?
MD: I met Jessie Robertson in 1996, and there’s is a very touching story associated with that, but suffice to say that is was God’s appointment, and it probably saved his life at a very low period for him. He’s a two-time cancer survivor, dabbles on the sax, and because it’s plumb illegal what he does with Milk Cow Blues, has been dubbed “Outlaw Jessie Del.” We add youth and beauty to the mix with Kristyn Harris on the acoustic bass, and fiddlist Brook Wallace as our lead instrument. My husband Chuck adds sweet harmonica touches, and is the introvert of the group. He comes along to protect me from the Outlaw.
MT: What about the youth and beauty you recruited for your West Coast tour?
MD: A fine young talent, Kristyn Harris, is a Western music star in her own right, whom I mentored from age 14–she just turned 21 in early June. She is like a daughter to me and Chuck, and Jessie loves her, too. Last year, she garnered the two top female performer titles in Western music when she became the Academy of Western Artists Western Music Female Performer 2013, and then became the youngest person to ever hold the honor or Western Music Association Female Performer of the Year 2014. She is definitely the ingenue of the bunch–a 5’2″-eyes-of-blue true cowgirl who lives on 20 acres in Collin County, Texas with her dad and two mustang horses that she adopted and trained from the wild. She will be taking her turn center stage at our shows, with her strong Western swing rhythm style, engaging original songs, Western classics and her big, radiant voice. Then she picks up a big acoustic bass, several inches taller than her petite frame, and whonks out some mighty fine Western swing licks as Outlaw and I take our turn. www.kristynharris.com
The icing of this cake is Brook Wallace, whom I have known since she was eight years old, when she was dreaming of becoming a world champion fiddler. She achieved that at age nine, when she aced the junior division titles for all three major fiddle championships–the youngest person ever to do this. Those days were all about technique and competition, but Brook progressed way beyond that and has a become a much-in-demand band player. With true drive, she is a captivating entertainer. The eldest of 10 kids, she is no stranger to travel, and in recent years has been seen playing in some pretty exotic locations like New Year’s Eve in downtown Dubai. But she’s very excited to come to Maui, as this is her very first trip to the islands and she’s bringing along her delightfully precocious four-year-old daughter Raelee. We truly are ohana.
MT: What are your five must-haves when you’re own tour?
MD: Pillows, cell phone chargers, hats and boots, guitar strings and tuners, lipstick and, in Hawaii, sunscreen. That’s more than five, I know, but I have a problem with overpacking…
MT: What are some of the highlights from your current tour?
MD: We have an appearance in Tucson, followed by a performance at The Mavericks in Visalia, California. That’s a bucket-lister, and I’m keenly looking forward to it because they make possibly the best coffee on earth. I smile at this, since you are from the coffee state–nothing like a good cup of Kona, ya know! We’re doing a theater concert for OutWest Concert Series in the Santa Clarita area, which will heavily supported by our pardners in the Western Music Association (WMA)’s Southern California Chapter. The WMA is the premiere organization, founded 30 years ago by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Michael Martin Murphey and many others to promote and support the music and musicians who choose this cultural trail, celebrating the life and musical arts of the American West. www.westernmusic.org
We’ll do a show in Altadena at Bob Stane’s venerated Coffee Gallery Backstage. Stane was part-owner of The Ice House in Pasadena back in the glory days of the folk revival (1960-1978) and hosted every bright star of improv and folk music during that time. A tour in So Cal for us will always include the chance to perform at the tiny venue. Hopefully, we leave the heat behind when we head for Northern California to do two house concerts, after which we head for Maui.
MT: We hear you’re hooking up with some jazz performers on Maui, too.
MD: We’re really looking forward to appearing at Stopwatch in Makawao on July 1. What a great way to kick off rodeo week festivities. Then the next day at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center, and that evening at Casanova. A highlight will be joining forces with the Jazz Maui participants, which just happen to be guys from our alma mater, University of Texas at Arlington. This is a total serendipity. With the help of Maui music producer and historian Bryant Neal, we’ve cooked up a spicy mix which will culminate with our four and their six players to create a 10-piece big band doing Western swing and American swing classics at Casanova on Thursday night, July 2. Sounds like that’s the night to get your boots ready for scootin’!
MT: What would you like future generations to remember about your music?
MD: I’ve worked at mentoring for almost 20 years, so that this wonderful and unique music will perpetuate into the next generation. I helped mentor Kacey Musgraves when she was one of our CowTown Opry Buckaroos, from age 10 to 18. We got to see her recently in her old stomping grounds. She became misty-eyed for those sweet days of learning her showmanship, Western music repertoire, yodeling and how to back yourself up with actual guitar-playing–everybody works in a Western band and there’s no karaoke tracks! She gave kudos to being a former Buckaroo, and before a packed house at Billy Bob’s she was not ashamed to end her set in the way we taught her, with “Happy Trails.” In that moment, I feel that the Lord let me see that we’re having an effect, and it’s daily reiterated for me as I have the honor to perform side by side with Kristyn and Brook.
Let me also say that I will always be grateful for “Riders In the Sky,” for choosing me to be the singing voice of Jessie on what became their first Grammy-winning CD, Woody’s Roundup feat. Another of God’s amazing appointments, let me tell you!
MT: What moment stands out for you and The Outlaw as artists?
MD: The April night in 2013 when Jessie and I accepted a Wrangler Award from the National Western Heritage Museum–the Cowboy Hall of Fame–in Oklahoma City. This was given to us to honor our debut CD Where in the Dickens R U? It’s kind of like winning a Grammy award for Western music.
MT: Have you been to Maui before?
MD: This is my fourth trip.
MT: What do you like to do on Maui when not performing?
MT: What do you do when you are not making music? Hobbies?
MD: Lunching with girlfriends and shopping afterwards in the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District. Actually, I volunteer at the Stockyards Museum every other Wednesday with my friend Teresa Burleson. www.teresaburlesoncowgirlpoet.com And I sing in my church choir. Uh, I guess that’s making music, too. I cook and sew (and hula a little).
MT: Do you have other stops in Hawaii?
MD: Yes, we’re headed for four days on Kauai [with] no performances.
Miss Devon and The Outlaw
Wednesday, July 1: Stopwatch Bar and Grill
Thursday, July 2: Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center; Casanova