Chris Shiflett seems like the last guy you’d expect to make a honky-tonk album. For more than two decades, he’s been a fixture on the California punk scene, playing loud, distorted guitar riffs in No Use for a Name, Viva Death and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. In 1999 he joined a little band that maybe you’ve heard of — Foo Fighters — on lead guitar.
Rock may be his day job, but Shiflett has been moonlighting in country for a few years now. In 2010, Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants released their self-titled debut, a collection of originals steeped in acoustic guitar and pedal steel. Their new follow-up, All Hat and No Cattle, deepens the twang as they cover classic country tunes by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and others.
Featuring Shiflett’s dexterous picking and drawling vocals, the Dead Peasants’ covers of “Pop a Top,” “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” and “Good Time Charlie’s” aren’t ironic. There’s no smirking or jeering, no posturing or playacting. But neither are they overly reverent. As Shiflett explains, his enthusiasm for the genre and the band’s dues-paying time on the honky-tonk circuit have sharpened the Dead Peasants into a formidable live act.
CMT Edge: What’s your background in country music?
Shiflett: I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll, and part of that was I loved rockabilly. When I was little, I got into the Stray Cats and stuff like that. I went through high school and got turned on to Robert Gordon and things like that. I like that sound.
Before I was in Foo Fighters, I used to be in this band called No Use for a Name, and the singer, Tony [Sly], turned me on to a lot of alt-country stuff that was happening back then. It was immediately after Son Volt and Wilco and Whiskeytown were making their first records.
I like the older stuff but just didn’t know it, so a friend of mine told me to get the Merle Haggard box set. Get the Buck Owens box set. Get some Wynn Stewart. Get some Ray Price. It’s great when you get into something you’re not really familiar with because, all of a sudden, there’s this gigantic backlog of great records to dive into.
Why make a country album?
I made an album in 2010 that had a lot of pedal steel and acoustic bass on it. It was a real Americana-sounding record. Touring for that album, I started to develop a greater appreciation for that old-school country sound. I had this idea: Why don’t the Dead Peasants learn as many of those old songs as we can and be a honky-tonk cover band for a while?
My goal was to get a residency in Bakersfield [Calif.] and play once a week up there for a month or two. But when it came time to actually sit down and learn the songs and play the shows, it became clear we weren’t going to be able to do that. It’s just too far away. So we started doing a bunch of shows all over.
Initially, I thought we should record one of those shows and make a live album, but it would have been impossible to pull off with no budget. But we have this studio in the Valley where we make Foo Fighters records, and we all use it for our various other bands. So we decided to go in and record it live. Just bang it out. I really didn’t want to do the thing that lots of people do — where they go in and play it really loud with distorted guitars. I wanted the guitars in particular to really draw from the way those old records sounded.
Did you ever get to play Bakersfield?
We finally went and played there a few weeks ago. It was exactly what I had wanted it to be. We played at the Crystal Palace, and everybody there was so cool and really welcoming. Buck Owens’ son Buddy happened to be there that night, and I got to meet him. I had a few old-timers come up to me afterwards and say, “I didn’t know who you were when you started, but Buck’s up there smiling down.” That really meant so much to me. To go there and play his club and not be booed off the stage or have rotten tomatoes thrown at you, it’s a great feeling.
How is that kind of experience different than playing a Foo Fighters show?
Every show we do is pretty different. For one, I have a different role in the Dead Peasants. Being the guy out front leading the charge is a challenge. But when we go out and do a Foo Fighters tour, people are there because they love the band, and they sing along to every song. When the Dead Peasants play, nobody knows who the fuck we are. We have to win people over. It’s a different kind of energy.
One of the great things about this old honky-tonk music we’ve been playing is whether you know them or not, there’s something about these songs that grabs you by the ass and makes you want to dance. Usually when we play L.A., which is the most jaded place in the world, people stand there with their arms folded across their chests and just watch you quietly. That can mess with you when you’re onstage. But when the Dead Peasants played there a few weeks ago, we got the crowd dancing. It’s not because of anything I do. It’s all about what the songs do.
Bakersfield really pioneered the electric guitar in country music. Was it a challenge to learn a whole new approach to playing?
It’s challenging in a lot of ways. There’s the technical side of it. Just tone-wise, it’s a very different thing than what I grew up with. I grew up with very loud distorted guitars, and that’s very comfortable. There’s a lot of leeway there. But playing a Telecaster through a Fender Deluxe Reverb [amplifier] is a very unforgiving sound. It was hard to wrap my head around it and get comfortable with it.
Also, a lot of the guys who played on those records — Don Rich and Roy Nichols and James Burton and guys like that — they’re some of the best guitar players ever. What they do is amazing, and I wanted to learn to think like them when I play.
It sounds like you approached this almost as an apprenticeship.
There was a point when my guitar playing felt stagnant, so I tried to learn different things. When I was a kid taking guitar lessons, I was a terrible student. I never learned the stuff that my teachers told me to learn. My biggest education was playing in bands. That’s where I learned most of what I know. But as an adult, I love taking guitar lessons. I have a completely different appreciation for it.