The Two Dollar Pistols disbanded in 2008 after more than a decade of recording albums and continually rejiggering their lineup, and I’m only learning about them now. My excuse is that I’m slow on the uptake when it comes to music classified as ‘alt-country’ because it often seems more alt than country. But that’s not true of the Two Dollar Pistols. In fact, the alt-country classification does a major disservice to an act like this one, which was, at its heart, a lean, mean honky tonk machine. Imagine a singer with the resonant tone of Mark Miller doing Bakersfield-inflected originals that frequently sound like lost classics and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
On 2004’s Hands Up!, the band’s third (and, as it turned out, penultimate) full-length studio album, founder and vocalist John Howie Jr. writes or cowrites every song, which is no small feat considering the consistent quality of the material. “Runnin’ With the Fools” is a good old-fashioned shuffle that would have been right at home with Faron Young during his Capitol years, while “There Goes My Baby” sounds like one that got away from The Mavericks. “Lonely All Alone” and “How’s Life (on Top of the World)” are both unabashed Bakersfield toe-tappers that speak right to the heart of Dwight and Buck, while “Without Goodbye” and “It’s All Fun and Games (Til Someone Breaks a Heart)” are sprawling, regret-filled break-up ballads that even take on a somewhat operatic quality.
Without a doubt, the songs on Hands Up! are a topically homogeneous lot: every one is about heartbreak. That woman pointing the gun at you on the album cover is no joke, but the greatest weapon of all might be the voice of John Howie Jr., a voice seemingly made to deliver songs of just this sort. Howie’s leisurely baritone can cry and keen, dip down into the depths of despair with the greatest of ease, all the while maintaining an imposingly resonant quality that lends even greater weight to these already weighty songs. To my ears, it’s a marriage made in honky tonk heaven.
Eventually, I’ll check out the band’s other three full-length albums, one live album, and one EP of duets with Tift Merritt. Since disbanding the Two Dollar Pistols, Howie has started up a new band called John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff, which I might also have to check out as soon as they release some music. For now, though, I’m just soaking up the excellent Hands Up! and urging you to do the same. If you haven’t already, that is.