Recommended if You Like
Johnny Cash Riders in the Sky Sons of the Pioneers

Genres You Will Love
Moods: Mood: Fun Country: Cowboy Country: Old-Timey

By Location
United States - Wisconsin

Wacko Bob and the Skillet-Lickers

We were going to put something entertaining here, but the CDBaby FAQ says that the bio has to be true. So all the stories about the young Skillet-Lickers being raised by wolves in a nuclear waste dump will have to wait for another time. Or their life riding the range, and their years spent as rodeo clowns and part-time longshoremen. Facts, how boring.

Wacko Bob's Skillet-Lickers are not, in fact, reincarnations of Gid Tanner's Skillet-Lickers, though the old-timers did do The Eighth of January, which Jimmy Driftwood transmogrified into The Battle of New Orleans, a song that was always one of the big crowd-pleasers for the Wacko Bob incarnation. We like to think that a lot of the crude and uncouth spirit from those old 78s comes through in the modern version's equally primitive recording conditions, their contempt for musical niceties and their flair for lowest-common-denominator humor.

Lead guitarist Franky had fooled around with the guitar for years, briefly forming a duo called Orly and the Bear with his best friend. His mother had instilled in him a love of Johnny Cash and 1950s-60s country and western, when there was still something western about it and it had not completely devolved into the glossy rubbish that Nashville was full of from about 1970 on. She also regaled him with stories of seeing her favorite cowboys, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Lash LaRue at the the movies in the 1940s. He fondly recollects memorizing the lyrics to "25 Minutes to Go" when he was about five years old and shocking his poor great-grandmother with a cheeky rendition of this now-Wacko Bob classic.

When a cheap University of Wisconsin student sublet ($100 for the entire summer) tossed Franky into the den of filth on Johnson Street in Madison in 1981 with Brock and Bob, things immediately clicked. They shared their extreme poverty in surroundings that can charitably be called dismal (mushrooms growing in the bathroom, the ceiling collapsing and the dozens of layers of lead paint peeling off the kitchen wall in massive shards). They became best buds and were always up to some mostly harmless mischief, such as starting a fan club for local meteorologist Robin Marshment, complete with membership ID cards with photos from the Woolworth booth and a fan club anthem, or shining a spotlight on drunks taking a leak in the backyard parking lot, while shouting, "So you like to take your pants off!"

One day, Bob announced that he wanted to learn to play the guitar, since his older brother had given him a hand-me-down crackerbox. Franky said he'd teach him, and that Bob should get a book of songs he'd like to learn out of the public library, fully expecting some pop tunes. Bob is never likely to do the expected however, and instead came home with The New York Times book of 100 Greatest Country Songs. This struck a chord (ha!) and Franky thumbed through the book. The easiest song looked like Marty Robbins' El Paso, and they started in from there. As they were picking their way through it, Brock came home from work as a lifeguard and started singing along. His gravelly baritone was the perfect blend for Bob and Franky's rough-hewn guitars, and before long they were working their way through the book, singing to the refrigerator as their only audience.

But what to call themselves? Bob had borrowed a history of country music from the public library, and he noted there had once been a band called the Skillet-Lickers. That was too hard to resist adopting, and it certainly was a descriptive name for their type of home-grown backwoods music. Having previously assumed the names Bob, Brock and Franky for their careers as imaginary longshoremen (they liked wearing the hats....hats are very important to these guys), it was natural that they should stick with them for the cowboy band. But the magic combination came when (still in front of the refrigerator) Bob did a big James Brown-style entrance, narrated by Brock, who improvised and called him Waco Bob. Franky interjected, "more like Wacko Bob," and there it was: Wacko Bob and the Skillet-Lickers.

They branched out and soon had a playlist of over two hours, emphasizing their affection for the singing cowboys of the movies, such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers, and also country and western music (emphasis on the western) of the 1950s and 1960s, like Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton. They even went beyond the book, tape recording the audio of Roy Rogers movies off mid-afternoon television to transcribe lyrics and learn chords, which was preferable to going to classes. Franky also stooped to visiting music shops and memorizing songs, to be written down later that day. Call it building a repertoire on a budget, if you will.

But well aware that they really weren't all that good, they made sure to make humor a key ingredient in their songs, often ad-libbing a line in falsetto, making rude comments about the "droners" like High Noon, or occasionally slipping into character as elderly Jewish men. They were not, as you may hear on the album, above prop comedy: for instance, the "horn section" of Ring of Fire, the train whistle on Folsom Prison Blues, or the hammer-and-a-hinge clank that enlivens Big John. And of course the coconuts. Using the few tools at hand, a screwdriver, a hammer and a broken hacksaw, Brock and Franky somehow cut a coconut in half and after about four hours of work had it hollowed out enough to produce the satisfactory clippity-clop that makes its way into North to Alaska, Tumbling Tumbleweeds, and Happy Trails. Unfortunately, their all-falsetto version of "Stand By Your Man" that was known to send dogs howling in terror and to induce epileptic fits in sensitive children was never recorded. Or perhaps that should say, fortunately. Sometimes it's hard to be a woman, indeed.

It took some serious persuading to get these guys to actually play to people instead of the refrigerator. The crowds were not only receptive, but seemed actually to enjoy the Skillet-Lickers' off-kilter take on these country classics. After a few open mikes at the UW Memorial Union, they were invited to play at the now-defunct Union South for a brown-bag lunch, and had several appearances at the even-longer-defunct Poor Richard's Coffeehouse off campus. They were even escorted off the property at the Wisconsin State Capitol for singing without a permit, decades before it was trendy for that to happen.

The band regularly did the traditional busker routine when they got hungry, playing on State Street until they had enough money in the guitar case for gyros at the Parthenon, which was usually the signal to shut down the session. They always took with them their hand-made "tour poster," which listed imaginary dates in such places as Spread Eagle, Wisconsin, Wahoo, Nebraska, and Lake Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire. The Skillet-Lickers never, however, bothered to actually memorize the chords or the lyrics to any of their songs, and thus always played every single gig with the sheet music held in front of them by lead singer Brock, either with arms stretched out, or in his lap if he was called upon to play the coconuts or the hammer-and-a-hinge.

Encouraged by the reactions, they kept playing and honed their craft in front of some of the toughest audiences in the world: drunks on State Street at bar time. It was there that they earned their tagline: "The drunker you are, the better we sound." They from time to time played to empty rooms, which made them feel just like they were singing to the refrigerator again. There were also bigger gigs, such as pig roasts and even weddings (seriously, who has the Skillet-Lickers play at their wedding?), as well as the Greenwood, Wisconsin Dairy Days beer tent, which unaccountably emptied except for Franky's mother and Bob and Brock's girlfriends. It must have been milking time or something.

The Skillet-Lickers' last major concert was for a huge crowd at a 1985 ice cream social benefit for the historic Dean House in Monona, Wisconsin. That concert would have made a heck of a live album: adding a drummer, Ollie, who often doubled as their "roadie," and showing off Franky's versatility on the fiddle and the less traditional saxophone, the band's reception was better than ever. At least, it was if you judge by the number of little blue-haired ladies who kept coming up afterwards to tell the Skillet-Lickers how much fun they had had. Plus, there was ice cream.

That triumph unfortunately heralded the end. College days were over, real life was beckoning, they were heading their separate ways, and the era was over. The Skillet-Lickers now lead semiproductive lives, still live in Madison (though their paint is no longer peeling), have settled down and are married, and to all appearances seem normal. But they know deep in their hearts that they are now, always have been, and always will be, Skillet-Lickers.