If you think you’ve heard all there is to say about heartbreak and life on the road, chances are you haven’t listened to Santa Rosa resident singer/songwriter/bandleader Michael Thomason. His straight-from-the-hip songs about loneliness, betrayal and good love gone bad put a new spin on eternal country themes in a resounding twang that proudly displays the influences of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and Elvis.
On his latest CD, “Ridin’ the Night Train”, Thomason brings the emotional essence of life’s hard knocks into sharp focus, with spare lyrics rendered in an unsentimental voice that says, “This is how it really happened.” Stylistically, the CD covers a lot of ground. It includes ballads, breakneck 12-bar shuffles, accordion-laced Norteño, a nod to Hank Williams, as well as fresh covers of tunes by Steve Earle and Leonard Cohen.
The overall vibe, though, is Bakersfield. It comes from an ultra-tight band anchored by two very hot guitarists: the telecaster wizard, Sean Allen, and pedal steeler, Ruetiger Karahn. Their tasteful (but never overstated) lick swapping keeps the auditory nerve sufficiently tickled, while the rhythm section (drummer Jens Dunker and bassist Don Schmitt) maintains a firm groove. Thomason’s youngest daughter, Jessie, who has been singing with her father since she was 3, trades lead vocals and harmonizes, adding a sweet, high-lonesome sound.
Unlike many wavers of the Americana flag, Thomason earned his country credentials the old-fashioned way: by playing 35 years in roadhouses and county fairs in and around California’s fabled Central Valley. A native of Modesto, an agricultural town on Hwy 99, Thomason, grew up listening to country, blues and rock. But it wasn’t until 1971, when he was 24, that he started playing professionally. In 1974, he recorded his first single, “California”, with the Buckeroos at Buck Owens’ studio. From 1976 to 1979, he lived in Austin and toured extensively throughout Texas and Louisiana. He’s since toured Europe and the U.S. with his own bands, and opened for Tammy Wynette, Emmy Lou Harris, Asleep at the Wheel, Johnny Paycheck and other country legends. En route, Thomason also shared the stage with such luminaries as Amos Garrett, Bill Kirchen, Keith Allen, Larry Otis, Carl Brouse, Gary James, Kenny Dale Johnson, Norton Buffalo and Don Schmitt, his current bassist.
Thomason, 59, now resides with his family in the hills outside of Napa Valley, California where he’s long been a favorite in local clubs.
Of fame and fortune Thomason says: “If it comes, fine. If not, I’m perfectly happy recording and touring with the great musicians I’ve assembled in this band. For me, making good music and having appreciative audiences are reward enough.”