John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys was for over 30 years (until Wright’s death in 2012) the signature country rock band of New England. The band was started by Wright in 1973, and cut its teeth in the boisterous clubs of Harvard Square–King’s (later Jonathon Swift’s), the Oxford Alehouse, Performance Center I and II, Bunratty’s across the River, many suburban clubs and lounges throughout New England. They appeared regularly at O’Lunney’s and the Lone Star in New York and the Chickenbox on Nantucket. They were also a popular opening act for college concerts and showcase appearances by major recording artists, including Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Duke Robillard, Del McCoury, Willie Nelson, and the The J. Geils Band.
The Sour Mash Boys were, and always remained, a New England band—and in particular, a Cambridge band. When the possibility of moving the band to Austin came up, Wright nixed it, a reflection of his tenacious New England identity.
Growing up in Maine, he had always been a fan of country music. When his proto-rock late-60s band, The Beacon Street Union, collapsed in the wake of MGM Records’ failed Boss-Town Sound promotion, he decided to follow his heart, and with nothing to lose, to take his chances on the music he loved. His timing couldn’t have been better: The Sour Mash Boys hit the Boston area club scene just as country rock was beginning to take off as a national vogue. Wright’s band with its distinct rock roots, offered a brand of country that was gritty, urban, and eclectic, a style that suited the youthful club scene around Harvard Square.
And in fact, the band members’ prior experience had been almost totally in rock bands. This brought an attitude to their stage presence—something of the anarchy and irreverence characteristic of 60’s and 70’s rock bands—and a hard, take-no-prisoners edge to their music. It was a sound you would not have heard in Nashville of that era—only years later would the electric rock band become the standard platform for Nashville.
Known as a “drinking” band, the Sour Mash Boys amassed a large, rowdy following and worked regularly through the 70s and well into the new century. The original lineup was: John Lincoln Wright on vocals, John McDonald, lead guitar and vocals; Ed Hughes, drums; Ray Jacques, bass; Bill Henderson, electric violin. The one player with any actual C&W experience was 19-year-old John Macy, on pedal steel, who had worked in house bands in Lubbock, Texas.
The band’s repertoire was combined Wright’s original songs with covers of songs by Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, the Grateful Dead, etc. Over that time, there were many changes of personnel, including, within the first year, Kevin Lillis on bass, and Dave Kinsman, drums, and George Heath, on guitar and banjo. John McDonald and Bill Henderson left after 3 years and were followed by George Nelson and Larry Feldman on lead guitar and fiddle. Steve Morse, in the Boston Globe, noted that the number of musicians passing through the band exceeded one hundred—and even included two women.
The constant, however, was always John Lincoln Wright, whose authentic approach to all forms of American country, his talent as a songwriter and performer, plus his ground-breaking rock credentials made him the perfect man to popularize country rock for several generations of young, hip, rock-oriented live music fans. Altogether, the band’s legacy was significant: it can honestly be said that, more than any other single influence, John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys brought country music to New England.
(by Bill Henderson)
Published on December 28, 2012