Country music makes a stand on King Street

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Sounds emanating from the nightly scene in Old Town may include bagpipes and bar jargon, but not country music, until you get up around the 800 block of King Street on Thursday nights, where Billy Clements and the Pickups perform at the Austin Grill.

Every Thursday night, the group hammers out country favorites like theres no tomorrow. Its not music of the Achy Breaky Heart variety either. Clements, decked out in his Johnny Cash black leather outfit with a giant Bolo tie clasp and cowboy hat, found his calling at the Grill, using his deep voice to sing Folsom Prison Blues just like the Cash himself.

We dont do anything new, its all classic country, said Clements.

His sidekick, Michelle Renee, has Patsy Kline down pat, hammering out another strand of country favorites that go perfectly with the Texas atmosphere in the Austin Grill, all the way down to the Lone Star flag hanging on the restaurants yellow walls.

Its an emotional style of music, youre telling a story, said Renee. With Rob Gabriel on the upright bass, and Joe Nelson on a simple drum set, and newcomer Roy Brooks on the guitar, the group keeps the tunes rolling for regulars and passersby alike.

The stage in Austin Grill is tight but when they play bigger venues, the band line-up sometimes includes Brian Frenchy LeBlanc and Kenny Drake on the pedal steel guitar, Joe Chiocca and Chris Sonnenberg on lead guitars, and Ira Gitlin on another guitar. The Pickups in their name refers to this pickup style of compiling musicians.

Real country
On a warm Thursday in August, Eileen Dickson stopped in for her favorite drink, limeade and rum, and was pleasantly surprised at the music. When you step in here youre going to a little part of Texas, she said. Shes fabulous, Dickson said during one of Renees songs. Her voice is really strong.

Bret and Cyndi Zieman stumbled on the group by accident, too. After watching a movie called Walk The Line about Johnny Cash, they wanted more [of it] so they dropped in on a show, and now they come back every Thursday.

We wound up staying here because of him, Cyndi Zieman said, pointing to Billy Clements. They play real country, said Bret Zieman.

Theres nothing new about any of the groups songs, but thats what makes them popular. They have a self-titled CD featuring Folsom Prison Blues, Blue Moon, Hello Mary Lou, and Blue Suede Shoes. Occasionally, couples get up in the space in front of the band to do a little two-stepping. Its not surprising to see a group of regulars usually show up and then return with friends and relatives.
Sometimes we end up with two or three generations come to see us, said Clements.

Born locally
Gabriel knows theyve found a niche at the grill. Theres nobody else that does country in Old Town, we are it, he said. Gabriel played in several Alexandria-based bands through the years, including a Motown, R&B band called Marked Deck, another group called Lady Ice and the Titanics, and then the Spoilers, who made a music video at the Laughing Lizard a few blocks from the Austin Grill. American music is really where Im at, he said.

Clements was born in the old Alexandria Hospital that was once on Duke Street and grew up listening to Johnny Cash since he was 10. In those days, country favorites like Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark and Patsy Kline all used to play in this area, he said. The whole band has been on the stage at Alexandrias 10th and 11th First Night in Alexandria celebrations on New Years Eve in the past.

Old Town resident Jennifer Carter-Wharton bought a copy of the CD for her father who lives in North Carolina. Its nice to see them take something old and make it their own, she said. He listens to it in his truck, she added.

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