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June 22nd, 2009
Firewater Sermon: heartfelt, haunting, catchy

Shawn Line, left, and Michael Reeh, right, of Firewater Sermon. Photo by Sarah Stevens.

By SARAH STEVENS
Scene Reporter

It is a constant condition of life in Texas to be exposed to Country and Blues music, but not much of it is as distinctive and as heartfelt, or as haunting or catchy, as that performed by the San Marcos band Firewater Sermon.

Firewater Sermon formed two years ago when guitarist Michael Reeh met fellow guitarist and singer/songwriter Shawn Line.

“Mike [Reeh] and I had mutual friends, and he had come to watch me play acoustic at Riley’s,” Line said. “I didn’t really know him, but we knew all the same people. He came over one night and brought a bass player, and we ended up jamming for over five hours, then I asked him to come play with me at Riley’s. It started from there. We’ve been through a couple bass players and different drummers.”

Bassist Michael Hartman, and drummer Andrew Kelly are more recent additions to the group.

“I knew a buddy who was trying out as a drummer for the band, and I tried out on bass,” Hartman said. “I just stuck, I guess. I’ve been the bass player for a little while, so we’ll see.”

A typical set from Firewater Sermon is as likely to include covers of Waylon as it is original songs. The songs range from bluesy and sedate laments to more upbeat and rock numbers, and, either way, there are usually some members of the audience up on the dance floor.

“My dad played honky-tonk music, and I grew up in dance halls,” Line said. “My grandpa was a classic country DJ, he had a huge record collection. That was a big influence on me.”

Continued Line, “I started as an acoustic singer/songwriter and then picked these guys up, so for me it’s been an adjustment, as a songwriter, to have a band and try to make a format to what I’m doing that everyone can adapt to. It’s weird. I don’t tell people what to play or what to do, or I try not to. Some things work and some things don’t.”

Said Hartman, “As a bass player it’s been an ideal situation for me. I just get presented with a bunch of chords and a certain rhythm and I get to paint over the top of it. Having Shawn write the songs takes the weight off my shoulders and gives me the freedom to work over the structure.”

Said Reeh, “I like ‘Pleasant Thoughts of You,’ that Shawn wrote, that’s always a good one to play. It’s a different kind of song. It has rock to it but you can’t put it into a category of any kind of music, everybody comes together and does their own thing to it. It’s a good thing, I think, to not be able to put it into any category. That’s what we’re going for, to mix them all together.”

In times rife with cookie-cutter bands and formulaic fame-seekers, Firewater Sermon is a breath of fresh air.

“If Betty Jo Crocker in Suburbia, America, doesn’t like me, I don’t really (care),” Line said. “If I’m not known and the people I care about love me, and I’m anonymous to Betty Jo Crocker, then I’m fine.”

Line comes up with the lyrics and structure for the original songs, drawing from personal experience and inspiration.

“I write these words, but to get up there on stage with other people behind me, exposing myself like that is a hard thing to do,” he said. “Being that emotional is a difficult thing to do in front of a bunch of people who are just drinking. It’s hard to express something that personal.

“People will come up to you and say, ‘I really liked that song,’ or ‘I felt that,’ and that’s what you do it for. That makes every little bit of being poor and broke worth it. It makes you feel like the countless hours you spent noodling around on the guitar were really worth it. I don’t have the aspect of wanting to be a rock star. That’s not my angle.”

Said Reeh, “If you’re big, people are only going to listen to you because everyone else is listening to you. When you’re starting out, the people who listen to you are listening to you because they like you. Going from the ground up with no money doesn’t really happen anymore.”

Regularly appearing at Riley’s Tavern on Hunter Road, Firewater Sermon is an active part of the San Marcos scene.

“The Triple Crown is cool because it’s a small place,” Reeh said. “If you’re loud, everyone has to listen to you. If you’re doing a good job they’re forced to realize that and have a good time too. It’s more of an in-your-face venue. They’re there to hear music. Playing anyplace that has a crowd that’s willing to respond to you is a good time.”

With each show the band plays, the set changes and the tone changes, but the band maintains the polished and cohesive sound that most others can only strive for.

“My goal with the band is to try to get better; striving for more and more and expanding as musicians,” Hartman said. “Then, looking at your own songs as an audience member and analyze them that way, being as honest and unbiased as you can. My goal is to do that and as a result become a better musician.”

The band has been through several names, starting with Two Day Heroes. Later, it was going to be Between the Lines when Line’s brother was about to join, but that didn’t happen. Eventually, Line came upon Firewater Sermon,

“I’ve always had a fascination with Native Americans, and whiskey,” Line said. “Indians called whiskey firewater, and everyone wants to take a religious connotation to the sermon part, but there doesn’t have to be. We’re not telling anyone how to live.”

Firewater Sermon hasn’t released any albums yet, though the band is working on some live recordings. There is no planned release date on anything, yet, but the band’s website has some songs and media posted. For upcoming shows, visit www.myspace.com/firewatersermon.

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