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Wheelers in the Sky

I got 18 different women/In 18 different towns/I got 18 time-tested ways/To hold my liquor down.

-- Chris DeAngelis, "18 Wheeler"

With his straight chin-length hair and his black horn-rimmed glasses, Chris DeAngelis looks like he'd be more comfortable penning beat poems for open-mic night at a local java joint than scribbling lachrymose lyrics for the 18 Wheelers, a local collective bent on bringing the boot-stomping beats of honky-tonk to South Florida.

South Florida, after all, is a dance-music haven where most locals would be hard-pressed to identify Country Music Hall-of-Famer Buck Owens as anything more than "that guy on Hee Haw."

So why are patrons at Tobacco Road jamming the back patio at a recent Wheelers gig with TNN-style dancing, gut-wrenching yeehaws, and hearty applause at the end of each song? And why is it that, with nary a ten-gallon hat in sight, people are shouting out requests for "Folsom Prison Blues," the Johnny Cash classic?

"This is music that's made for the barroom," says DeAngelis, who shares lead vocal duties with guitarist Paul Feltman. "It rocks; it swings. It's got all this different stuff going on. It's more raucous, more real. It doesn't alienate people."

Sure doesn't. Even though the band's corralled behind a waist-high, wood-slatted partition (visually transforming the quartet into three legless musicians and a bobbing head for a drummer), the audience regales the band with brazen woooo-hoooos as DeAngelis dedicates the next tune. "I'll send one out to all of you dope-smoking hippies out there," he calls out before the band swings into Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee."

Founded a few years ago by DeAngelis and former Maverick guitarist Ben Peeler, the band was originally known as Dudley Peeler and the 18 Wheelers. ("We used [Ben's] real name," DeAngelis notes.) Peeler departed last year to pursue other projects. But there was never a doubt in DeAngelis' mind that the band would prevail. "Everybody sang songs. It wasn't like [Ben] was the lead singer. He just had this great name: Dudley."

Today's 18 Wheelers incarnation consists of DeAngelis plucking an enormous Kaye standup bass, lawyer-by-day Feltman strumming rhythm acoustic guitar ("the same type Johnny Cash plays," he boasts), Peter Parente picking lead guitar, and Robert Lemont swinging the sticks on drums.

Along with sharing mic time, DeAngelis and Feltman share songwriting duties. "He'll bring in one; I'll bring in one. We haven't collaborated on anything yet," says DeAngelis.

The Wheelers lure country-hungry locals with both original and mainstream C&W covers dating back to the '40s, when artists like Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams first brought America a carnival-ride style of song directly from the small-town smoky bars known as honky-tonks.

"When we started the band, we decided we were going to go artist by artist. We learned a bunch of Buck Owens tunes, then Merle Haggard. They're the originators of honky-tonk," says DeAngelis. "Some of those old guys were really punk rock; they were rebellious, antisocial pains in everybody's ass. Like Johnny Cash -- he was like that before they had a name for it."

The Wheelers' tunes are propelled by swing-style backbeats, chunky chugga-chugging guitar lines, and occasional three-part vocal harmonies. Lyrically they cleave to what DeAngelis often explains to audiences as the "traditional country music themes: alcoholism, jail, trains, drinking because your girl left, your girl leaving because you're drinking."

Merle Haggard's 1966 release "Swinging Doors" -- one of half a dozen Haggard covers the Wheelers play -- boasts four out of these five motifs: "I've got everything I need to drive me crazy/I've got everything it takes to lose my mind/And in here, the atmosphere's just right for heartaches/And thanks to you I'm always here till closing time."

As DeAngelis observes, "If you want to sing a really sad song, country's the one. Rock 'n' roll is good for direct stuff: 'I want to eat, I want to dance, let's fuck,' whatever. But country has got that lonesome thing going on."

Feltman's and DeAngelis' own songs incorporate the emblematic themes, but both songwriters throw in ample helpings of humor. "Leftover Love," a swinging ditty that tracks the progression of a good love gone bad, starts out with kisses that "taste so sweet, like cherry pie" and ends with busses that taste like "three-day-old meat loaf."

Another earnest honky-tonk tune, "Cruel," wails the woes of a hard-working man caught in the clutches of a good-for-nothin' Dixie chick. "You called me from the Last Chance bar," Feltman sings. "Said you were ready to come home. So I hopped in my rig, and I headed out into the night. You were cussing at some bikers when I walked through the door. I caught a pool cue in the head, and I hit the floor."

DeAngelis and his bandmates may revel in their own brand of histrionic excess, but they never allow themselves to get too serious. "My songs are pretty much the same silly old songs no matter what style they're in. Country music is generally story kind of music, songs with a narrative base."

To hear him talk, one would think DeAngelis was born with spurs strapped to his heels and a wad of Skoal tucked inside his cheek. But DeAngelis' hillbilly roots stem from the flatlands of Central Florida. "I'm from Satellite Beach, the beach that leads to Melbourne, which is a real redneck town. This is the kind of music I've fought against my whole life."

After deciding to rebel against all that even whiffed of shit-kick, DeAngelis moved to Miami in 1988 and, ironically enough, began listening to mid-'70s country-rock. Drawn to Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers because they hailed from Winter Haven, a neighboring town to Satellite Beach, DeAngelis was shocked when he discovered that many of Parsons' tunes were covers.

"You go back and find those recordings, and you're like, 'Ha! This is "Grey Speckled Bird," by the Carter family, or this is a Cash tune, or this is a Louvin Brothers tune. [The 18 Wheelers] discovered country music by going backwards in time. A lot of them, like the Louvin Brothers, you think are these yokels, and then you find these tunes that everybody has done, like 'Love Hurts,' which I remember as a Nazareth tune in high school."

While DeAngelis was busy scraping by as a musician (he also plays for the Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice and the funkadelic Raw B. Jae) and a live sound engineer for acts like Manchild, the Mavericks, and Mary Karlzen, Feltman had moved from Miami to Texas to pursue his own musical vision in the style of the early Bakersfield sound: rough-hewn honky-tonk. After playing in clubs around Austin with an outfit called Cosmic Americans, Feltman fell into debt and decided to return to Miami and start working. "I was basically operating like the federal government," he quips.

Currently, all the Wheelers except Parente are working day jobs, something DeAngelis gruffly notes. He recently landed a stint penning copy for MARS Music and Recording Superstore: The store's execs wanted a "real" musician writing their ads. "First day-job in seven years, and I'm ashamed. It's not a career. Being a broke, ornery old musician is my career."

To date the 18 Wheelers have gigged at assorted city festivals, the Poor House and Home (where they opened for rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson) in Broward, and Rose's and the now-defunct South Beach Pub in Miami-Dade. They've even played at Zappy's, a bar and bait shop in Key Largo.

Next up? A self-released CD showcasing mainly Wheelers originals, to be recorded within the next few months.

But the band has no plan to truck to Nashville, à la the Mavericks. "That's almost as cheesy as going to Las Vegas," DeAngelis says. And although the Wheelers maintain a wait-and-see approach to their livelihood in South Florida, they remain confident that honky-tonk is the only way to play. "Nobody ever talks about rock 'n' roll coming from honky-tonk," Feltman says, "but rock 'n' roll came from blues and this country music we play."

Adds DeAngelis: "This is the side of rock 'n' roll they never give credit to. It's the ugly redheaded stepchild."

The 18 Wheelers play at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, July 8, at Tobacco Road, 626 S. Miami Ave., Miami. Call 305-374-1198 for more information.

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Emma Trelles