Pete Witham remembers watching his mother and aunts play music while he was growing up in the Pittsfield area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The great songs of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were the soundtracks to his youth.
“They’d get together, just two or three guitar players, maybe a bass player, and they’d play around at Grange halls and stuff,” Witham said. “We were definitely a musical family.”
Those early roots in country and rockabilly have served him well, though he didn’t really realize it until just four or so years ago. After playing for nearly 20 years in an array of rock, alternative and jam bands, the now Portland-based Witham rediscovered his love of American roots music only in the past few years. His band, Pete Witham and the Cozmik Zombies, will play at 7 p.m. Friday at the Pittsfield Community Theatre, as part of Witham’s several times per year Pittsfield Opry concert series.
It all began in 2006, when Witham formed a group called the Burnham Boys with a few friends, including childhood friend Dan McCaw, with the goal of playing vintage country.
“We both really loved old country, and were kind of rediscovering it after all those years,” said Witham. “But Dan started gravitating more toward straight country, and I really started leaning more toward rockabilly. So, I started my own band, though Dan and I still work together a lot.”
A longtime fixture in the Portland music scene, Witham began playing classic country and early rockabilly songs in town during 2008, in the hopes of finding some people to gig with. In addition to fellow Burnham Boy member, vocalist and flattop guitarist Steve Dunphy, Witham attracted the likes of talented upright bass player Haakon Kallweit, and expert drummer Per Hanson. The Cozmik Zombies were born.
Kallweit ended up producing the band’s first CD, “Full Tilt,” a raucous, swingin’ collection of rockabilly songs with a seriously smart sense of humor. It combines a driving, high-energy take on the thumping boogie of early Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent with a decidedly 21st century lyrical edge. Witham’s songs aren’t just good, they’re funny as all get-out, not unlike contemporary rockabilly and hillbilly bands like Southern Culture on the Skids and the Reverend Horton Heat. One listen to a song like “The Trailer Park of Love” and you’ll understand what that means.
“That sense of humor is rampant in the stuff we write,” said Withham. “There’s enough serious music out there. We just want to have some fun with it. I think we know how to tell a joke. But we don’t want it to just be a jokey kind of thing — we want something really viscerally exciting going on with the music while we’re setting up a punch-line.”
It’s viscerally exciting indeed — rockabilly and early country both have that dangerous swagger that turns your ear. It’s appealing to anyone who ever did a double take at a really cool car, or skipped school to go joy-ride around town. Though his roots are in country, Witham’s first band was a rock band, and he later joined the ’90s Portland alternative band Kate’s Dream, in which he played with Waldo County songwriter Travis Lloyd.
“I think the punk rocker, rock ‘n’ roll mindset really isn’t incompatible with country and rockabilly,” said Witham. “Real good country is dangerous. It’s outlaw music. And I think the skills you learn playing metal or punk are very applicable to country — you need that dexterity to do really speedy stuff, whether you’re all distorted or not.”
Besides that, there’s something very satisfying about playing American music. There’s a continuum that starts somewhere in the late 19th century and continues on to today, passing through Delta blues, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and tons of other songwriters and musicians before ending up in the present day.
“We recorded a really amped-up rockabilly version of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ that we absolutely love,” said Witham. “The whole point of doing it is to connect what we do with the past.”
Pete Witham and the Cozmik Zombies will play at 7 p.m. Friday, July 23, at the Pittsfield Community Theatre, as part of the Pittsfield Opry series. Tickets are $10 and proceeds benefit the Maine Credit Union League’s Campaign to End Hunger. For information, visit www.reverbnation.com/petewitham.
In a quick update, Hal Ketchum will not be attending Down East Country Fest this Saturday. His manager has e-mailed a notice to festival organizers stating that Ketchum has become seriously ill and is under a doctor’s care.
Organizers are negotiating with other top Nashville acts, but didn’t anticipate being able to add anyone at this late date. That being said, Down East Country Fest still will feature country music star Michael Peterson, as well as Ketchum’s friend and hometown guitar legend Johnny Hiland and his band.
For those who purchased festival tickets for the sole reason of seeing Ketchum, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for a refund.