Not too long ago I sat down with Bryan Hodge for an exclusive artist interview. He later led me to Frank Dean. Bryan seems to know everyone in the music business so I figured I would give Frank a call and see what would come of it. So a few days later, I gave Frank a ring and we chatted for about fifteen minutes. That led to a second conversation the next day that led to an interview with him and his band. Frank has been all over the place and has shaken a lot of hands in his time. Names like Johnny Cash and Marty Stuart come to mind when I think of all the people that Frank mentioned. There are picture to prove it if you don’t believe me. We sat down for about an hour and chatted about everything from playing the guitar to his favorite cities and more. Frank and I could have chatted for hours; the stories never end. I am glad that Bryan introduced us. Frank has not only talent but also drive and a passion for music. Sit down with me and Frank as I am happy to introduce you to the Snakehandlers Blues Band.
I hope you don’t go around playing with snakes! Where did you guys come up with the name The Snakehandlers?
Actually I came up with it. I am originally from West Virginia and West Virginia is the only state left in America where it’s legal to use snakes for religious services. I remember as a little kid watching those people and how insane that was. You have these prim and proper womens and they pull out copper heads and throw them down their dresses. I remember thinking how nuts that was. Any chance that I get to take a shot at wacko religion; I am there.
Tell me a little bit more about Sindacato.
Wow. We were together for sixteen years. People still complain that we are not together any more. Occasionally someone rich will open a checkbook we get together to play a private party. That’s the good life. That’s twice as along as the Beatles. Give us a break. We have to do another things. I have been in only about four bands in my life. It’s not like we drifted from one thing to another. We felt like we covered a lot of ground. We were at the head of the Americana thing in this region. We got two albums of the year awards from the Indianapolis Star. We were the only band for those things to give album of the year to two years in a row. We really dig the albums we made, but at this point if we don’t have something new to say and a new way to do it, let’s just leave it at what we did. That’s exactly what happened.
Know that we didn’t leave on bad terms. A lot of stuff changes in sixteen changes. Sindeacato started out as four single guys. Now most of those guys have kids, some even have grand kids. The guy who was willing to go to Portland to play gigs all of a sudden can’t. Lucky for me I am still the world’s oldest nineteen year old. I can go anywhere and do anything. I’m ready. But I can’t expect other people to never want to grow up.
That band has won some pretty prestigious awards like Band of the Year. You also have some close ties with The Indianapolis Star and NUVO Magazine.
We were and are so humbled by it. We thought we were doing something interesting for us, to tell you the truth. It was four guys with a lot of different influences. Our first record came out before Brother Where Art Thou came out. We were placed well when that whole trend hit we were already doing it. In fact, we actually got to play a few dates with that tour, the Brother Where Art Thou tour. It was cool playing with Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash. Regardless of what people tell you, it’s pretty neat to be popular. For about five years there, any act that came through the Midwest we were the opening act. That was really great. I got to make a lot of friends that have stayed with me forever. It’s cool to be recognized.
I am bit of a music snob. It’s not that I don’t enjoy fans. I really do. You can play live if you don’t enjoy people having a good time. What always meant the most to me were the critics that got what we were doing. To get those awards, from guys that have been doing that for decades, for them to dig that stuff, and Jim Johnson who is pretty hardcore too, at the Indy Star, to have those guys really dig it was just too much for me.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
Most of my influences are people who don’t do anything like what I do. I don’t do anything like them I guess I should say. It’s that their music has meant so much to me that it helped me do my own thing. Of course Hank Williams Sr., Bob Dylan, I am a big Rolling Stones fan. I think Muddy Waters invented rock and roll. There are a million of them. Van Morrison; I am a huge Morrison fan. Lucinda Williams, Marty Stuart, Mark Knopfler; those are all people that I have a great deal of respect for.
It’s so cool to walk into the studio, like we are as a blues band, and know that everyone there has kind of the same influences. Guys like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters; we are all really into those guys. It’s like going in to the studio with one mind. You might disagree with which degree is better.
You own a guitar shop down in Franklin. I know nothing about guitars. What makes one guitar better than another?
I think they talk to you. (Laughs) Everyone is different and the one that talks to me won’t talk to you. For a guitar player, there is a moment you pick up a guitar and say, “This is the one.” Unfortunately that happens way too often. People in my house are always tripping over guitars.
You are originally from West Virginia. What brought you here to the Hoosier state?
My dad. He worked in the cole mines and on his forth day on the job there was a cave in. That was enough for him. He said piss on this and left. One his brothers lived here.
What is the biggest crowd you have ever performed in front of?
There are several big crowds. As far as a sit down concert it was probably the Brother Where Art Thou tour. I would say 30,000 or more came out for that one. Some of the summer festivals we did there were literally a sea of people in all directions. God knows how many people were at those shows.
That’s never really been a thing for me. I am more comfortable playing to a million people than five. It just becomes a sea of people. If 30,000 are digging it why should I be nervous?
I tell you what, the craziest thing that ever happened to me, just because everyone needs a big dose of reality sometimes. In Sindecato, one time, there was one gig where we were doing a bunch of shows with a national artist. The crowds were huge. The last gig was on a Thursday night. Friday night we were booked into the Dollar Inn over on the west side. There were three Hispanic guys who couldn’t speak English there. We went from knocking them dead and getting standing ovations to three guys who had no idea what we were singing about. One of them was pissed because we didn’t know any Michael Jackson.
I had the chance to sit down with Alan Johnson last night. We talked about you a little bit. He said he has worked with you in the past and would love to work with you again in the future. You should give him a call. How do you know Alan?
I was in a band in the early 90’s called Hillbilly Central. They used to book us as the Rolling Stones of country music. We were absolutely wild, crazy; nuts. It was a really great band and Alan actually engineered us.
What are you drinking on stage?
(Laughs) My alcoholic days are behind me. I drink iced tea. Whe it comes to alcohol, it’s kind of like a big black out to me, but I’m told that I was a lot of fun. For a while. (Laughs)
You have played in a few bands in your time. Does any one band mean more to you than the next?
The four that were really good were Blue Deville, which was kind of a blues swing band. The lead singer of that actually went on to get a recording deal with Alligator Records. Hillbilly Central, then Sindecato, and now the Snakehandlers.
They were all so different; it was a completely different thing. To me, playing means something. If I think enough of it to go out and perform, then I love it. I have never played a song on stage in the thirty plus years that I didn’t like. I just wouldn’t do it. Whether cover songs or my own, if I am going to do things I don’t like I should get a job that pays real money.
Who are some of the better acts here in the Indianapolis area? Anyone I need to pay attention to?
Bryan Hodge is one of my favorite songwriters. A guy named Ralph Jeffers is another one of my favorite singer/songwriters. There is a band that plays on the south side called the Thunder Club and they, as far as execution goes, no one can touch.
Bill Lankton, who does the jazz thing, is an amazing talent and a wonderful guy. I know I am just forgetting a ton of people. Who else do I go see when I am in town? John Burns is a wonderful guitar player. There are just so many. There is an amazing amount of talnted people out there.
John Marten and Gary Watson, both from Sindecato, they are doing solo stuff. The guys in Stereo Deluxe are great. I really dig it. The Gordon Bottoms Blues Band is really good. Gene Deer, who I have known since our early twenties, is an amazing player. Governor Davis; I always wish I had a record labrel of just people in Indianapolis. I love producing anyway, and that would be great to go to work every morning and start working on a record.
What can someone expect when seeing The Snakehandlers live for the first time?
I think they are going to have to love rock and roll. That’s different from rock. Other words, this is the real deal bump and grind, shake your ass, money music. Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones; we do dirt floor R&B. It is drinking, smoking, women chasing decadence. (Laughs) Alcohol and adultery you can dance to.
What makes it “Chicago” blues?
One, it’s going to be electric. Two, Chicago blues is delta blues, just amplifyied. You follow the twelve bar blues thing, and you don’t get into a bunch of sophistacted chrod changes. It’s working class music. Its where the Stones came from, Thorogood, Thunerbirds, Stevei Ray Vaugh, BB King type of thing. It’s real deal, emotional music.
What is the best concert you have ever been to?
I go back a long way. I saw the Beatles at the Colesium in 1964. That was pretty cool. I saw Jimi Hendricks and I got to high five him as he was walking through the corridor. I met Stevie Ray Vaughn and hung out with him for a while. He was a real gentleman. I have been really fortunate. I have been able to meet, through music, and tour with some of my idols. Merle Haggard and Albert Lee, and Patty Loveless; it just goes on and on and on. I couldn’t have felt any luckier if I had been president. I would rather be me than the president.
You do a lot of your own booking and artist management. What is the biggest challenge you see when doing it all on your own?
We used to and have for years, because I was waiting. Like small groups of people around who I know I can trust and who I know I can count on. It’s hard to find in this business. Everyone has an ulterior motive. In the last couple of months, just this year, I have hjooked up with Karen Hodge. She works with Deb Strother and they have both taken a big weight off our shoulers. It used to be me handling it all because I didn’t trust anyone else to do it. It took me three decades to find someone I trust that much.
Where do you see the record business in the next five to ten years?
The old school major labels are going to go down. Greed will bring ti down. It already has and goes back to the small labels. The Internet allows people to do that. You don’t have to just accept whatever they play on the radio. Ten, fifteen years ago that wasn’t the case. If it wasn’t on the radio you didn’t hear it.
I want a Frank Dean t-shirt. Where can I get one of those?
My mom loves Marty Start. How do you know him?
Marty is one of the most talented human beings I have ever met in my life. He was Lester Flatt’s mandolin player at twelve years old. He has played with Doc Watson and Johnny Cash, and as a solo artist its always music first. He is one of the most critically acclaimed singer/songwriters in recent memory. And one of the sweetest guys in the world. His new album is getting rave reviews.
So wait a minute. You actually bring snakes to your shows? I used to have a pet snake but I am not as fond of them now. What if I get scared?
It might change what I think about the song. Have you ever driven ninety miles an hour?
Who is the greatest guitar player of all time in your opinion?
There are a lot of different genres. What moves me is Roy Buchanan. As far as guitar with songwriting Keith Richards, just because that guy has written some of the greatest. Jimmie Vaughn, Stevie’s older brother knocks me out.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Room service. (Laughs) Receiving it.
What do you want to be remembered for when this is all said and done?
The guy that Kate Beckinsale never got over. I even dream about it.
I always let the artist get the last word. Go.
Look at music as an art form. The karaoke, the DJ thing, it might be a fun thing to go drinking to and to party with your friends and everything. That’s not art and that’s not what moves souls. Don’t be drawn in. Take the time to do the research and to know the difference. And of course, come see the Snakehandlers. Tight skirts and high heels are encouraged. (Laughs) I don’t say anything you can’t print. I wake up this way.