Hidden away on the outskirts of town, the Hanging Tree Saloon at first glance looks like a backdrop for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Upon closer inspection, however, it is abundantly clear that something else is going on.
Hot-rod Fords and Chevys line the gravel driveway, and rockabilly greasers and dolled-up gals come out of the woodwork to dance the night away.
When this happens, the saloon is transformed into an Eisenhower-era honky-tonk, where the sounds of traditional country, rockabilly
boogie, and swing pour out of the dilapidated screen doors.
This is the spot that Sean Castillo and the Hubcaps call home.
With his big, red hollow-body guitar customized with black flame decals and a raccoon tail, Castillo revs up the audience with his fascination for G.I. Joes, backwoods taxidermy, and vintage Fords, spelled out in songs such as “My Old Pal Joe,” “Double Clutching Daddy,” and “Short Bed Boogie.”
He also shows a softer side with ballads such as “You’re the One” and “Every Time You Look My Way,” which are delivered with warm vocals and gentle country licks, a testament to accomplished rock-’n’-roll traditionalists.
Add to that a host of cover songs by country/rockabilly greats Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent, Link Wray, and Eddie Cochran, among others, and you’re taken back to a time when country music was still country music (unless it was Western swing), and Webb Pierce, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis ruled the airwaves.
The band, with a little help from the cellophane wrapper of a cigarette pack, even manages to play a cover of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” that sounds exactly like a broken record.
Castillo and his accomplices — Bob “Texaco” Stafford (chickin’ pickin’ lead guitarist, who honed his skills playing for the incomparable Wayne “The Train” Hancock), Johnny Mendez (quiet, pipe-smoking bass fiddler), and Al Amaya (the man behind the drums, who takes care of business, literally) — are at their best here, performing to a homegrown rockabilly set that prefers to jitterbug and two-step into the wee hours, rather than drag race down Southwest Military Drive.
Castillo, also known as the “Wing King,” is famous for improvising songs on stage. On more than one occasion, he has surprised his band during a live set by playing a jukebox mainstay from the encyclopedia of music in his head.
“Every time we play with him, he throws a new song at us,” Stafford says. “He just calls out the key, and we jump right in.”
It’s never clear what’s going to happen next at a Hubcaps show, and if they had been around in the 1950s, they might have played to a rowdy crowd behind the safety of chicken wire. And the crowd loves him for this.
For more than 25 years, Castillo (who has played with his current bandmates for four years) has honed his rock-’n’-roll chops by playing theme-park circuits and the occasional Texas honky-tonk, and through it all, he has shared the stage with a parade of iconic American roots-music figures: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, The Coasters, The Drifters, Harold Hansley (a fiddle player famous for supplying music for TV shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies), Brian Setzer, and Russell Scott and his Red Hots — and the list goes on.
“I’ve shared the stage with just about everyone from the Sun Records days, and just about every one of my idols,” Castillo says.
Although the band prefers to play for the lubed-up saloon crowd, where they can be close to their followers, they have released a CD, and if you look hard enough, you can track down a copy of Hot Rod Daddy.
In a sense the band sees the disc as little more than a corollary to their live work. It’s telling that they have no clue what year the album was released.
“Like my old manager Cliffy Stone would say, there’s more to it than putting out records,” Castillo says.
Country music is never better than when it encapsulates the depths of human desire and wickedness into a few terse rhymes and reverbed guitar licks in a backwoods setting. When the elements are in place, a traditionalist like Castillo can transcend nostalgia, can make a distant echo sound like an amplified roar.
So come Saturday night, whether you prefer to grind your rocks off on the dance floor, admire hot-rod classics, or drink your weight in whiskey, Castillo and the boys will provide the perfect amped-up stylings of tense guitars and double-bass clutching music that made the nascent days of rock ’n’ roll such a mythical era. •
Sean Castillo and the Hubcaps
9pm Sat, Jul 12
Hanging Tree Saloon
18424 2nd Street, Bracken