Omar Kent Dykes has been playing rocking blues for 50 years. He began playing at twelve years old in McComb, MS, sneaking out of the house at night after his parents went to sleep to cross the railroad tracks into Bear Town where the black community lived. His friends in Bear Town taught him how to play the blues with soul from the heart. Omar moved to Austin, TX in 1976 and quickly became one of the hottest bands in town, playing with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and countless other bands that laid the foundation for Austin becoming the "Live Music Capital of the World." Omar and the Howlers began extensively touring globally in 1984. Since then, they have played in over 30 countries and 49 states. With influences of Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Bo Diddley, Omar has 25 releases since 1980 and continues to crank out material on an annual basis. He has been awarded the Netherlands Edison Award, Band/Album/Song of the Year by the Austin Music Awards, and was the 2011 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from AMP for his contribution to the Austin Music Scene.
Austin, besides being the Texas state capital, is home to much of the best in American roots music. Since the 1970s, gutsy blues players, renegade country pickers, and raw-voiced rockers have mixed and matched their musical styles in Austin ’s thriving club scene. And that’s where Kent “Omar” Dykes holds court too.
He hails from McComb, MS , a town with the distinction of being home turf for Bo Diddley. Omar started playing guitar and hanging out in edge-of-town juke joints at 12, joined his first band at 13 – the next youngest player being 50 – and started honing his music. He was still Kent Dykes in those days, but by the time he hit 20 he had hooked up with a crazy party band, called the Howlers, looking back, he says, “We had two saxophone players on baritone and tenor who wore Henry Kissinger masks. They were called the Kissinger Brothers. Not on every song, mind you. Sometimes it was Dolly Parton playing saxophone. Or Cher. And we had these cardboard cutouts from record stores for skits.” They even did fake ads for Sunshine Collard Greens and Howlers’ Fried Chicken – “for that old-fashioned taste that tastes just like Grandma.”
It was a crazy time, but a lot of fun too, with the rough & tumble Howlers playing R&B, Rock & Roll and even the occasional polka and western swing tunes. But Kent Dykes mostly just wanted to play blues. And by then the other Howlers had taken to calling him “Omar Overtone” because he tended to let his guitar feedback on stage while he dropped to the floor to spin on his back in a spontaneous, Big & Tall Store take on break-dancing. As he says, those performances were “sometimes fueled by, a-hmm, large alcohol consumption.”
By 1976, the Howlers decided to move and relocate to Austin, where such clubs as the Soap Creek Saloon, the Broken Spoke, the Armadillo World Headquarters and Antone’s had created a haven for renegade music. “We worked out of Austin for about a year,” Omar says, “but a lot of the guys decided they weren’t cut out to play music full-time for the rest of their lives. They headed back to Mississippi and Arkansas , and I decided to keep the name. Nobody objected.” And as Dykes says, Omar & the Howlers works better than Kent & the Howlers. Of such decisions are careers made.
Fronting a new lineup, Dykes honed a band capable of the sort of raw, rowdy, rambunctious blues that made Howlin’ Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor legends. Omar's first release was Big Leg Beat in 1980, shortly followed by I Told You So 1984, earning Omar & the Howlers consecutive Austin band-of-the-year awards in 1985-1986. A big break came in 1987 and 1988 when Columbia Records signed him up to release Hard Times in the Land of Plenty and Wall of Pride, right before the sale of CBS to Sony.
But really that was just the beginning as Omar followed up with another twenty albums in the next 20 years;, Monkey Land, Blues Bag, Live at the Paradiso, Courts Of Lulu, Muddy Springs Road, World Wide Open, Southern Style, Swing Land, Live At The Opera House, The Screaming Cat, Big Delta, Boogie Man, Bamboozled, On the Jimmy Reed Highway, Big Town Playboy, Chapel Hill, Essential Collection, I'm Gone, Too Much is Not Enough, and Runnin' with the Wolf.
On Boogie Man, Omar brought in songwriter friends he’s made since he left Mississippi for Texas 27 years earlier. “Co-writing at that point in my life was a lot of fun. To me it’s like free songs. These are ones that I wouldn’t have had the patience to sit down and write on my own. But when you get with friends and drink coffee, tell jokes and stories, and then write something, it always turns out to be something different than what you might have done on your own.”
Plus it’s not exactly heavy lifting to work with such Texas icons as Ray Wyle Hubbard, Darden Smith, Alejandro Escovedo and Stephen Bruton.
Besides the songwriting collaborators, Omar also brought some friends into the recording studio, including guitarists Chris Duarte and Jon Dee Graham (True Believers), Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, George Rains (Sir Douglas Quintet and house drummer on scores of Antone’s label releases) and his frequent running-mates Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa) and Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne.
Omar has done three tribute collections: On the Jimmy Reed Highway, a collaboration with Jimmie Vaughan, Too Much is Not Enough, and Runnin' with the Wolf. The other 20+ releases consist primarily of original material, with songwriting being one of Omar's best talents.