Music FeaturesTop Story

Howdies All Around: The Howdies Release Debut Album on New West Records

The Howdies. Credit: Nolan Terrebonne.

Widely recognized as a casual greeting, the word “howdy” can mean something different altogether at a bar in Athens: a half-shot ordered when you need to go gentle on your body or your wallet. As a band name, The Howdies conveys a warm friendliness while giving a wink and a nod to the place the members call home. 

Fronted by Austin Darnell and Shoni Rancher, the band is rounded out by Rob Hibbs on guitar, Seth Barham on bass, Tyler Key on piano and pedal steel, and Johnny Watson on drums. Wearing their influences on their sleeves, The Howdies channel all of the twang, grit and charm of country music’s golden age into their debut album Howdies All Around. Singing their way through the highs and lows of love and heartache, friendship and loneliness, and joy and sorrow, the band’s cathartic songs embrace the complexities of being human. 

Though rooted in the here and now, The Howdies’ songs resonate with a certain timelessness that harkens back to a bygone era that today can mostly only be experienced vicariously through old Western films. Not unlike the cowboys of yore who gathered ‘round campfires to pass down folk tales through song, thereby giving rise to Western music, the band originated during the pandemic while swapping songs at socially distanced bonfires. 

“Knowing we were all living in isolation but still wanting to connect musically, I started having backyard fires with a few musicians spaced out six feet apart,” says Darnell. “So sharing songs around a campfire was really the genesis of it all, and I hope we always keep that spirit when we play.”

Nolan Terrebonne

A familiar face within the local music scene for the past two decades, Darnell performed with the hip-hop group Deaf Judges for several years before pivoting into country territory with his two brothers in The Darnell Boys. Gravitating towards classic country of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he says he initially became interested in the genre by way of early Appalachian music and blues.

“As an Athenian I have a deep love for all music, and I am lucky enough to live in a place where I have the opportunity to create whatever I am drawn to,” says Darnell. “I will always have a deep love for hip hop because, in the end, it’s the story that interests me. Rap music has some of the greatest storytellers in the world. In many ways, there are parallels in history between the growth of hip hop and country music. Both come from the place of real people talking about their lives, their struggles and the conditions they live in. They tell powerful stories.”

Picking up where Darnell leaves off on the country music history timeline, Rancher is more heavily inspired by outlaw country artists of the ‘70s. Carrying the torch for country music’s golden age, both songwriters bring ideas to their bandmates, who collaboratively add their own rhinestone-studded flair. Though Rancher began plunking away on guitar as a teenager, joining The Howdies happens to be his first rodeo performing live with a band. 

“I’m certain my life experiences influence the songs I write, and uncertain if I could have written them any earlier,” says Rancher. “I’m also pretty certain that I couldn’t sing the way I do now 10 years ago. I mean, I’m still finding my voice, like I’m still learning how to play guitar. But with time, and a lot of commuting to Atlanta, it becomes a bit clearer what feels comfortable, what you can and can’t hardly do. I’ve felt comfortable bringing songs to The Howdies that I wrote 10 or more years ago, but only because I don’t sing them the way I did then.”

Rancher, now 48 years old, holds a PhD in philosophy, and finds that the past 20-plus years of study have likely influenced his songwriting. Beneath all the boot-scootin’, hootin’ and hollerin’ melodies are lyrics carrying thoughtful reflections and existential musings. 

“I’d even bet my early love of country songs influenced my desire to study philosophy in the first place,” says Rancher. “Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler,’ or Hank [Williams]’ ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,’ is philosophy. Hank is the Shakespeare of country music, and wasn’t ol’ ‘to be or not to be’ a philosopher? Yep, if it weren’t for the songs philosophy helped me pen, I’d blame country music for wasting my time with philosophy.”

Good storytelling is the beating heart of Howdies All Around. Based on a true event, “Buddies” revisits “American Pie”’s day the music died, empathetically revealing the survivor’s guilt musical hero Waylon Jennings—for whom Rancher named his son—experienced after giving up his seat on Buddy Holly’s ill-fated plane that crashed in 1959. Taking on a more fictional narrative, the slow and steady album closer “Twilight on the Plains” is written from the perspective of a young dying cowboy and captures the eerie lonesomeness of wide open landscapes and weary acceptance of facing one’s own mortality. 

The Howdies ultimately make music that’s meant to connect listeners, whether it’s through celebration or commiseration. The album’s upbeat opener “Hello, Jukebox” pays homage to the comforting familiarity of dive bars and smokey pool halls glowing with neon lights, where troubles and sorrows can be temporarily tuned out by a trusty old jukebox. Choosing to see the shot glass half-full, never half-empty, “50/50 (If You’re Lucky)” reflects on life’s dichotomy of ups and downs with the hopes that if you’re lucky, you’ll leave this world with a little more love in your life than pain. 

Howdies All Around was co-produced by T. Hardy Morris and David Barbe, recorded at Chase Park Transduction and mastered by John Baldwin at RCA Studio A in Nashville. The album will be available on “twilight” color vinyl, compact disc and across digital platforms via New West Records beginning Sept. 29. The Howdies will celebrate with an album release show with Cicada Rhythm and Little Gold on Thursday, Sept. 28. If you miss them there, you can catch them again locally at the Georgia Theatre Rooftop on Oct. 13 or Flicker Theatre & Bar on Nov. 9. 

WHO: The Howdies, Cicada Rhythm, Little Gold
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 28, 7 p.m. (doors)
WHERE: 40 Watt Club