MOE BANDY: |
(Rolling Stone, 2018): Moe’s trad cred got another boost in 1975, when he scored hits with records called “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life” and “Bandy the Rodeo Clown,” the latter co-written by honky-tonk legend Lefty Frizzell only months before his death. Frizzell’s tune gave Bandy a signature song, and with it, he rose nearer to Nashville’s top ranks. “It’s a Cheatin” Situation,” from 1979, won the ACM award for Song of the Year. “I Cheated Me Right Out of You” gave him his first solo Number One hit the same year.
“People were telling me, ‘Golly, you’re doing a lot of cheating songs,'” Bandy remembers. “I think they understood it was part of the business – like acting, doing the role.”
There was less distance between Moe and his drinking songs. As the decade continued, the singer’s alcoholism had worsened. Looking back, he describes how the culture of the country music industry fed his addiction. “I was playing all these bars and joints, you know? And in Nashville, back then, it was who you drank with and who you hung out with that got you in the business a lot of the time. We all drank and partied, and it was part of it. I just went overboard and it got to affecting my personal life.”
Bandy got sober in 1983. But in the four years prior, he and Joe Stampley had become known for the party songs they sang as a duo. “Just Good Ol’ Boys” had gone to Number One. Then, on the heels of the Urban Cowboy phenomenon, they opened their own bar: the Moe and Joe Club, a Texas honky-tonk that, in true Moe fashion, both knocked off and parodied the famous Pasadena, Texas, venue Gilley’s. Where Gilley’s housed a notorious mechanical bull, Moe and Joe installed a bucking armadillo that could toss riders with equal force.
Stranger than the armadillo, even, was the duo’s song “Where’s the Dress?”, a Boy George–inspired novelty hit in which Moe and Joe decide to dress in drag – become “country queens” – in a bid to revitalize their careers. The plan goes awry when they enjoy gender-bending so much that it instead puts their careers in jeopardy, and the music video ends with the conservative Roy Acuff using the bow of his fiddle to beat the mascara-wearing singers off the Opry stage. (In Lucky Me, Moe credits this episode mostly to Joe.)
Moe and Joe made their last studio album together in 1984. Moe continued scoring hits through “Too Old to Die Young,” which went to Number Two in 1989. In the Nineties, he became one of the stars of Branson’s old-timers circuit. Yet now, when it comes to Bandy, country music seems to be undergoing a little honky-tonk amnesia of its own. The singer has been shut out of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in his memoir, he recalls being refused tickets to the ACM Awards when no one in the office recognized his name.
Meanwhile, Bandy’s style of song seems to be suffering a similar fate. Listen to an afternoon of country radio and you may not hear the word “cheating” once. Bandy attributes this to people becoming “more soft” than they used to be. “I don’t advocate cheating, of course, but it does go on,” he says. “And that’s life. There have been so many great marriages that have been ruined because of the cheating. You gotta just sing about life, and that happens to be part of it.”
Yet even today, fans continue to seek out not just Moe’s music but Moe himself. Bandy never actually worked as a rodeo clown, but try telling that to his most loyal listeners. “To this day, I have people say, ‘What year was it you quit clowning?’ or ‘You saved my life when I was riding bulls,'” he says.
It’s easy to see why the persona stuck. Moe may never have clowned in a rodeo, but through his music, he invokes the spirit of the clown in the fullest sense of the word.
For the drama teacher and theorist Giovanni Fusetti, this sort of clown is an “archetypal figure” that humans have always used to help understand their own folly. “We have the concept of perfection, and success and order,” says Fusetti. “And we also know that most of those things will never happen, so we are constrained by life’s limitations. Therefore perfection is more of a myth, a reference point. We can either take this very badly and get really pissed off, and fight against gods, and in theatre we call that Tragedy; or as the clown does, just fall and laugh about it.”
So goes Moe, caught between earnestness and irony, knocking out men but reconciling himself to the fate of the gods, delivering lyrics in which devastating heartbreak is given up to devastating pun. For 50 years, his music has kept the honky-tonk tradition alive, and given voice to those, like him, trying their best to hang on to that bucking armadillo of life.