BY JOHN LACY
How many Algerian terrorists does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, because they can’t all fit in there. How many drummers and bass players have Nine Pound Hammer plowed through over the years?
Oh, say six and five, respectively. Even by Spinal Tap standards, the personnel turnover seems a bit excessive. Considering the band’s fifteen year on / off relationship, perhaps the band member loss ratio isn’t so fuzzy afterall.
To shave off some of the fuzziness, go back to early 1986 in Owensboro, Kentucky. High school chums Scott Luallen (vocals) and Blaine Cartwright (guitar), together with bassist Brian Payne (aka Forrest Payne), and drummer Toby Myrick play two shows at the Ross theater in Evansville, Indiana as the Yuppie Mop Dogs. Playing mostly covers such as “I Fought the Law” and “Blitzkrieg Bop,” Luallen describes the nascent performances as “really, really bad.”
At this point, the Yuppie Mop Dogs change their name to Nine Pound Hammer, purloined from the Merle Travis song. Payne moves. Bart, a skinhead of the non-nazi variety, fills the bass vacancy; the band changes its name to the Raw Recruits and sticks to playing mainly in Owensboro and Evansville. They also start hammering out original material and try it out at an end of season party for the Kentucky Weslyan football team held at the VFW post in Owensboro. Luallen remembers saying onstage, “Just pull the plug and we’ll quit. Just don’t throw anything at us.” After the Skynyrd-programmed crowd had finally, and miraculously, been deprogrammed, the band felt the show had actually gone well; so well in fact, that Luallen and Cartwright agreed that being in a band was what they really wanted to do, relocating to Lexington in the latter part of 1986.
Upon arrival, lodging was obtained at your basic rock and roll heap of dung with a mailbox. Raw Recruits become the Black Sheep and begin playing so often at the now defunct Great Scott’s Depot that they practically become the house band. “I remember one night that we were playing the P.A. caught fire,” says Luallen. “We were either that bad, or that good.”
Soon, personnel problems would reemerge. While driving back from a gig in Cincinatti, Luallen and drummer Myrick got into a fight over gas money at a truck stop. Subsequent to the altercation, Myrick was asked to leave the band. An advert seeking a drummer was disseminated in the seedier parts of town and was answered by Darren Howard, rabidly into Led Zeppelin and Kiss. The Black Sheep would then become forever known as Nine Pound Hammer.
The rechristened quartet was ready to go-daddy-go at full ramming speed. As it happened, Lady Luck soon showered them with a golden opportunity. “We were playing a show at Tewligans in Louisville,” smiles Luallen fondly. “That’s when we met Len Puch who was the president of Wanghead records and was also in the Detroit-based band Snakeout. He liked us and our energy, so we started to talk.” Dame Fortuna smiled toothily as Puch expressed interest in the band recording for his label.
As the details were being hammered out, the band began to play away from Lexington more frequently if for no other reason than that’s where a lot of other venues were located. Once again, however, the winds of change would begin to blow, as those particular currents of air are wont to do. This time it was non-nazi skin head Bart who left to find his last name. Kathey Llewallen was next with a three-month stint. Former Active Ingredients bassist Brian Moore would replace her. But wait. Oh, yeah it’s coming. Drummer Darren Howard was soon to depart and move on to more superlatively hued pastures. The drum throne was next occupied by University of Kentucky student Rob Hulsman who joined just in time to record Nine Pound Hammer’s first LP, The Mud, the Blood and the Beers, which was released in 1989.
The album was widely reviewed in such publications as Billboard, New Melody Express, Goldmine, and Maximum Rock ‘n Roll. The Heavy Metal magazine Faces
regarded Nine Pound Hammer’s freshman efforts as, “Johnny Cash meets the Ramones in a sparkling thrash debut that alternately sends up and super smartly explains that most misunderstood of cultures, the Midwest, redneck lifestyle.” An anonymous critic parsimoniously penned, “recommended to retards and beer-gobblers.”
In order to placate the mentally challenged and the beer-lords, tour plans were soon completed as Nine Pound Hammer smote the pavement for the East Coast and Canadian locales of interest: Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat. One night before a show (uh-oh), Moore and Hulsman shared a fifth of Evan Williams bourbon. Moore, with Luallen in tow, ended up falling down a flight of stairs. Consequently, the rhythm section sounded as if they were working on their instruments rather than playing them. Luallen objectively recounts, “When we actually played the show Brian was swinging his bass around at the audience. We stopped playing after three songs. Then Brian was out and we recruited our current bass player, Matt Bartholomy, from a band in Owensboro called White Hiney.” Finally, a semblance of stability.
“At this point the Wanghead records thing is kind of fading and things were looking kind of bleak until we got a call from Tim Warren, the owner of Crypt records in Hamburg, Germany. He sent us to Brooklyn, New York, to record Smokin’ Taters at Coyote Studios,” says Luallen.
Nine Pound Hammer was then off to Europe to play a masochistic fifty-six shows in sixty-five days. They played to crowds at youth hostels and medium sized halls in Germany, France, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Amsterdam. The shows smoked and so did the band. The Hammer was evolving into a force on tour.
It wasn’t too long after the band returned home that another European tour was planned. Hulsman was “invited” to leave, so Johnny Evans took over the skins to fulfill the tour dates.
After a gig in the Basque region of Spain the band was actually paid with a brick of Moroccan hash. On Christmas night during the tour, Cartwright, Bartholomy, and Evans were assaulted by Algerian dissidents (the best kind) somewhere in France. Everybody got maced by the club owner except the Algerians.
Johnny Evans quit soon after the tour. Cartwright moved to Nashville. Hammer would eventually reunite and add another drummer, Bill Waldron, as they began recording their third album, Hayseed Timebomb, in Glasgow, Kentucky. With the album’s release, more touring of the U.S. and Canada ensued. A third and final tour of Europe included stops in Milan, Italy, and Slovenia during the Balkan war. Waldron, too, would soon quit and was replaced with Adam Neal for added dates in the U.S. and Canada. Waldron would rejoin for a ten-day tour of Japan in 1996.
That was the last time Nine Pound Hammer played together.
If the self-proclaimed purveyors of neo-folk punk rooted in the agrarian lifestyle had differences in the past, they seem to have been reconciled. Of his long time writing partner Luallen said, “Blaine deserves to be remembered as being in the same league as songwriters like Dave Alvin, Springsteen and Chuck Berry. Some critics don’t get it, because they haven’t lived these songs.”
On December 22, 2000 the band will play its second reunion show at Lynaghs; the first was last September in Atlanta, Georgia. The show was shot by filmmaker Tim Fuller for the possible inclusion in a documentary on the band. Expect a lengthy set list of about twenty-five songs. Local band the Brassknuckle Boys will open.