Country Comfort

The 18 Wheelers prove you can go down home again

There aren't too many bands in South Florida that pride themselves on making truck-driving music. The sweaty-armpit-style, four-to-the-floor country rock that's almost nonexistent around these parts, might have a sizable audience — but there aren't that many venues where you can still relax and hear it.

So it's no wonder that Miami-based honky-tonk outfit the 18 Wheelers are excited to play shows whenever they can. The band seems somehow out of sync in a town where rap, hip-hop, and Latin music are generally the norm and where run-of-the-mill cover bands recycle that tired one-off dance standard "Play That Funky Music" so relentlessly that it's become a local anthem. By contrast, the Wheelers set themselves apart, tapping into songs etched with the authenticity of genuine, dyed-in-the-wool Americana. Listening to them crank out convincing covers of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" or Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," audiences can easily imagine they're not in South Florida but rather in some downtown dive in Austin or Nashville.

Bassist, cofounder, and chief 18 Wheeler dealer Chris DeAngelis concedes that retooling roots music would be much easier in a place where Americana is more the norm — cities like Austin, Nashville, or Bakersfield, California. In fact, he once considered leaving Miami — as other past members of the band have done — but decided otherwise because he didn't want to break up the band. "I think you can get your act together anywhere. Where you go to find opportunity after that is up to you."

Honky-tonk music for the highways
Mindy Hertzon
Honky-tonk music for the highways

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Still, it's no surprise that staying the course along country roads while attempting to pave their inroads has been challenging at best. "Most of the music I'm into never had really wide appeal here," DeAngelis complains. "For a city this big, you'd expect a much more vibrant and varied scene than what we have here. But when you consider that English is a second language for more than half the people living here, you can begin to understand why things are so tough for people playing music that is sung in English. There is a healthy scene here where singers, writers, and bands are moving onto bigger things, but it's almost all in Spanish."

"Latins aren't hip to country at all," adds drummer Robert Slade LaMont, who is Cuban himself. "And the younger crowd doesn't want to know about anything other than Led Zeppelin or U2."

DeAngelis laments, "Miami, and South Florida in general, is for the most part indifferent, sometimes even openly hostile, to a lot of American roots music, so the number of musicians who enjoy or understand honky tonk is a limited one. But we've been able to carve out a niche for ourselves here."

Of course, the group doesn't have a lot of competition.

"We joke that we're the best country band in South Florida because we're the only country band in South Florida," LaMont chuckles.

Still, DeAngelis suggests that even in Miami's oh-so-hip environs, there is a place for a down-home outfit like the 18 Wheelers to survive. They might not get booked at the same venues where techno and house DJs rule the scene, but they also couldn't care less about that type of vibe in the first place.

"There's plenty of people who view that kind of scene as pretentious and pointless," he insists. "I think some folks see the music we provide as a sort of antidote to that stuff.

There are places like Tobacco Road, Churchill's, and Fritz & Franz Bierhaus, however, where the band has become a fixture. "Being around as long as we have, the 18 Wheelers have actually outlasted most of the clubs we've played at," DeAngelis observes. "We get hired for private parties a lot and have actually played at a pretty large number of weddings. We're the wedding band of the 21st Century!

"In general, we've found that when we play a gig, we've got a certain core of folks who show up to see us and also a number of people who just happen to be in the club that evening," DeAngelis continues. "We've done gigs where there are Haitian people dancing alongside punks and grandparents... For a few of them, the music reminds them of their home, or it's what their parents or grandparents used to listen to — you know, a nostalgia thing."

 
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