Newt's Least-Favorite Band: The Austin Lounge Lizards

People who haven't heard them often wonder what a band calling themselves the Austin Lounge Lizards could be about -- especially after browsing the band's current catalogue of goofy album titles: Highway Cafe of the Damned, Creatures from the Black Saloon, Paint Me on Velvet, Lizard Vision, and their latest, on the Austin-based Watermelon label, Small Minds. "I think it was a slang term I'd heard my grandmother use to describe gentlemen of easy virtue who hung around in bars," said founding Lizard guitarist Conrad Deisler. "When we started out, that's just what we were doing -- hanging out and playing for beer and tips and stuff like that." Fifteen years ago, Deisler, Hank Card, and Tom Pittman were exploring their collective muse on weekends and pursuing professional careers the rest of the week. Today, the Lizards are a full-time touring outfit serving up an overflowing musical platter -- the meat-and-potatoes elements of bluegrass and country (complete with steel guitars, weeping fiddles, and tinkling banjos) spiced with raucous satire aimed at roots-music conventions and American society in general. "We're like comic relief," Deisler explains, describing their festival bookings. "Everybody starts walking around at the things holding their mouth a certain way. We give 'em a chance to hold it a different way for 45 minutes -- in a big, broad, and goofy grin. Then they can get back to the more serious work." The Lounge Lizards trace their origins back to the late '70s, when Deisler, then a Princeton student, hooked up with Hank Card to indulge their shared folk and country interest playing in progressive folk bands. The two landed in Austin in 1980, where they met Tom Pittman, a banjo and pedal-steel player who'd just moved to town from Georgia. They combined the sounds of Pittman's bluegrass heritage with the folk and country forms from Deisler and Card's college-band days up north. Not content with playing covers, the group decided to take a crack at their own revisionist version of roots-music songwriting. "Everyone realized just how silly some of the lyrics in some of these songs were," Deisler recalls, "and we figured out that we could take some of the conventions of country and roots music and satirize them as part of ours. So that's what we did on songs like 'Paint Me on Velvet' -- which takes the whole Waylon Jennings archetype and speaks some thoughts he might not ordinarily have. 'Put the Oak Ridge Boys in the Slammer' is another example -- we're criticizing them in our song for the low intellectual level of their lyrics, but at the same time we're mimicking their style, singing in their own broad four-part harmonies and everything. It's kind of an inside joke." One wonders whether Republican whipping boy Newt Gingrich will be laughing after the band finish paying tribute to him on Small Minds with "Gingrich, the Newt." The song, set to a fife-and-drum cadence, explains the glaring difference between the small harmless amphibian and its more malevolent human cousin by pointing out that real "newts are open-minded and flexible and cute" and that "you will never catch a newt with something up his sleeve." Gingrich is just one stop on the line for the Lizards, whose new disc ends up taking a crack at nine other topics ranging from the Nashville music scene to the relevance of humidity in the universe. The latest barbs will probably float through clubs as they go on tour, sporting much the same line-up they've had for years -- Deisler, Card, Pittman, and fiddler/mandolinist Richard Bowden -- plus new bassist Boo Resnick. "He's much more of a nutcase than [former Lizard bassist] Kirk Williams was," Deisler says, noting that Resnick often uses the tall and somber Pittman as a straight-man foil on stage. "Tom's the Tower of Dour." The Tower of Dour? "Well, yeah. After all, in a band like this, you can't travel with a bunch of guys for years without coming up with a few descriptive terms -- you know?"

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