Listening to "Everybody's Movin' On," the new CD by Ken Atkins & The Honky Tonk Kind, has an almost spooky quality.
Go ahead. Happily assimilate all 10 songs of archival, blue-ribbon country music - all the cheating, drinking and heartbreak as illuminated by the nighttime glow of neon bar signs and a jukebox. When the album's finished playing, you'll be able to smell stale cigarette smoke on your clothes, taste the lingering Lone Star on your beer-thick tongue, and will wince in anticipatation of tomorrow morning's well-earned hangover.
"I would definitely say I've had quite a few of the experiences associated with honky tonk music," Atkins laughs. "Honky tonk draws from life, and (often) from the perspective of a barstool. It's real music, and we honor that, but it's also true we poke a bit of fun at the various aspects of the honky tonk lifestyle. We like to say we make heartbreak fun."
The official kick-off party for "Everybody's Movin' On," released by a new Austin boutique record label called Sound Job Austin, takes place tonight in New London's 33.
That a Connecticut band has signed with a label based in one of the nation's immortal country music towns is a tribute to Atkins' songwriting authenticity as well as the fluency of the band. Along with Atkins, who plays guitar and sings, The Honky Tonk Kind are Tom Trombley (drums/vocals), To Benoit (bass), Susie MacKay (accordion) and Paul "Swampy" David (harmonica).
"Country music is a well developed art form," Atkins says. "I'm not talking about the Nashville stuff you hear on the radio. I mean real country. It's either country or it's not."
Atkins' style is steeped in the work of folks ranging from Buck Owens and Merle Haggard through Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam to Dale Watson and the Derailers. That lineage comprises a high-arcing bridge from old school original country across the foul river of country pop to the post-Americana movement.
"The development of so-called Americana opened a lot of musical doors," Atkins admits, "but where it had its roots in country, it was sort of taken over by artists infusing blues and rock into it and it became a home for a lot of ex-rockers."
Atkins credits Watson with creating a back-to-honky-tonk movement called Ameripolitan, saying, "After Americana left the stone-cold country guys on the outside, Watson rallied the forces. We proudly call ourselves an Ameripolitan band."
Atkins, who lives in Griswold, has been an integral part of the local music scene for years. His mother listened to country music while he was growing up in the '70s but "I couldn't stand it, I was listening to Deep Purple," he says. He learned guitar and achieved regional rock success as a member of the popular New Johnny Five.
But a strange thing happened. Over the course of many post-midnight drives after gigs, Atkins started listening to the syndicated "Nashville Gold" radio program. "I started to get infatuated with honky tonk. That stuff sinks in and starts to work on you," he says.
When the Derailers and Watson began to actually appear on college radio in the '90s, Atkins' songwriting underwent the transformation to country. He formed The Honky Tonk Kind and set to work. Before "Everybody's Movin' On," the band released an early self-titled EP and, in 2010, and album called "She's Not Coming Back." They steadily earned a local following along with similar like-minded acts like The Hoolios, The Rivergods, Vince Thompson, The Village Jammers, and Preston Franz and Hellbent & Hearbreakin'.
Along with Franz, who's an old pal from the New Johnny Five, Atkins shook up the indie rock-centric local live music scene with the Blue Collar Happy Hour - a long-running Friday afternoon series in New London's Bank Street Cafe that helped bring country music to a whole new audience.
At the same time, recognizing Austin as the musical mecca for the style of music The Honky Tonk Kind were writing and playing, Atkins started to book shows in Texas. Over the past several years, the band has traveled to Austin for a short tour each fall, performing in such vaunted venues at the Hole in the Wall, Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon, Patsy's Cafe and Reilly's Tavern.
"From the start, the reception was really nice," Atkins says. "We were very easily accepted and it was most complimentary to see the shock on people's faces when they learned we weren't from Austin or Texas or even south of the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, at the Hanging Tree (in Bracken, Texas), we were met with stunned silence when we said we were from Connecticut. Silence in a good way, though. Like, 'How did this happen?'"
A big help in establishing the Austin connection was SJ Williams. A former country disc jockey at New London's WCNI, Williams had relocated to Austin and immersed herself in the arts and music scene. Not only was she able to introduce Atkins to valuable connections, Williams independently decided to start her Sound Job Austin record label.
"I'd ended up playing in several bands and really wanted a label associated with our releases," Williams says. "The label is very new. Our first act is the Amy Q Band. Ken and the boys are my second signing."
Williams says that she's been a longtime fan of Atkins' voice and guitar playing, and that his band is full of great musicians. Still, it wasn't until she actually moved to Austin that she realized how good The Honky Tonk Kind really are.
"I discovered that Ken could hold his own with almost everyone I was checking out," she says. "It made me quite proud that a homegrown Connecticut boy sounded so damned twang - like he was born (in Texas). It's quirky to have signed a band from the northeast that sounds so much like Austin!"
The songs on "Everybody's Movin' On" have been written over a few years and arranged and road-tested at live gigs. They recorded the basic tracks locally, in The Reducers' longtime rehearsal studio. And old friend Kevin Packard, now living in Boulder, produced the record.
"I was tempted to do it myself," Atkins says. "Technology is so advanced nowadays. But I'm very glad I didn't. Kevin did a terrific job. It's a great sounding record."
With the release of the new album and the heightened profile in Texas, Atkins says he's more ready than ever to push for the next level.
"All of us in the band are rooted in this area, and we love it," he says. "But Austin opened our eyes to what's possible. We'd like to maybe start touring there twice a year instead of once, and to also seek out the Rockies and the west coast and midwest."
Atkins laughs. "This is where the real work begins," he says. "We had a blast living the songs and making the album. Now we have to actually promote it. And that's fine. This time, it feels right and we have the energy and the desire to do it."