The Cow Ponies would be right at home in a proper honky-tonk, their classic country-meets-rockabilly sound crafted unwittingly (or wittingly) for simultaneously dancing up a storm and chasing life’s storm clouds away in a tall glass of something non-liver-friendly. John and Robin Graham lead the way, trading vocals and snarling stories peppered with lively guitars and that heartstring tug of the pedal steel.
Members of the Cow Ponies got their early start as Milwaukee rockers and rollers, playing in groups like the Cocktails/Rock-a-Dials, Those XCleavers, Torn Soul, Xposed 4heads and Resist Her Transistor. With John Graham on guitar and vocals, Robin Graham on vocals, Tom Tiedjens on bass and vocals, Keith Bolog on pedal steel and vocals and Andy Stilin on drums, the band uses those rock roots to open up into a more full-on rootsy sound, picking up that bit of rockabilly that was often the foundation of the Rock-a-Dials and their other projects.
On Tuesday, May 3, the Cow Ponies played on WMSE’s Local/Live. At the end of Local/Live, for the "This Is Your Song" segment where the musical guest chooses one musician or group (and one song) that has influenced their own music, John Graham dished on why Robert Gordon and Link Wray’s "Lonesome Train" really gets to him. If anyone recalls the Rock-a-Dials, they will surely remember the Rock-a-Dials’ version of this tune. Clearly, this singular song has been one of Graham’s longest burning song flames.
Catch the full segment in the WMSE archives, and below, get band leader John Graham’s take on why Robert Gordon – especially when paired with Link Wray – is his biggest influence of all-time.
- Musician/Band: The Cow Ponies
- WMSE’s Local/Live Date: Tuesday, May 3, 2016
- "This Is Your Song" pick: "Lonesome Train (on a Lonesome Track)" by Robert Gordon with Link Wray (from the album "Fresh Fish Special," released in 1978)
- Interviewed: John Graham (guitarist and vocalist)
What/when is your first memory of hearing this particular song?
My drummer and longtime friend Tommy Mohan bought the album and gave it to me to listen to. I think I first played it in my small apartment on Irving Place on Milwaukee’s East Side in 1979. If I recall correctly, my ex-wife, Laura, and I listened to it together, and we were just blown away.
Was it the first song you listened to from this musician or group?
That was the first time I heard Robert Gordon. We listened to the album – yes, album – in order from first to last. I think "Lonesome Train" is maybe the seventh song on the album, but I remember that song in particular really hit me. I was like, "We have to do this song!"
In what specific way does this song or artist influence your own music?
Robert Gordon was my first taste of rockabilly, and I fell in love. At the time, 1979 or so, we were more of a new wave pop band called The Cocktails. After we heard Gordon, we started exploring rockabilly more. We went to a place called Mean Mountain Music on the South Side of Milwaukee, 9th and Oklahoma. The owner of that shop was super nice and a fountain of information. He turned us on to all the rockabilly legends. We slowly morphed into The Rock-A-Dials and went full-on rockabilly.
I still love that music, but with this band, I have tried to hold on to the spirit of that music but branch out a bit more into the country side. I just feel it offers a little more room to create, especially with my songwriting.
If you could ask this artist only one question, what would it be?
Ha! What did it feel like to play with Link Wray?! But seriously, I think I would ask him how he got turned on to rockabilly and why he enjoys playing it so much.
Have you ever seen a live show, and did it meet your expectations?
Sadly, I did not. One of the biggest regrets of my life. Robert Gordon came to Milwaukee and played at The Palms on 26th and State. My ex, Laura, and my friend Tommy Mohan went. I wanted to go so bad, but I had the flu and like a 103 temp. It sucked.
I did, however, get a chance to see Chris Spedding, the guitar player who took Link Wray’s place. He did a solo show at The Starship that was utterly fantastic. What a talented guy. At one point in his show, he did impersonations of famous guitar players. His Jeff Beck – my hero – was spot on. ‘Nuff said!
Local/Live on WMSE airs every Tuesday on WMSE from 6 to 7 p.m. Listen live, in the archives at WMSE.org or simply tune your radio (in the Milwaukee area) to 91.7 FM at the 6 o’clock hour.