In a revealing aside from Stephen King’s novel It, the bartender Ricky Lee remembers a washed-up “rumdum” who stumbles into his dive, gives a woman a roll of quarters for the jukebox and spends the night drunkenly singing along to the music of the country singer Moe Bandy. He then goes home and hangs himself.
King’s anecdote may be extreme, but he chose the right musician to illustrate it. With equal parts wit and despair, Bandy’s 1970s classics detailed the lives of men and women who drink and cheat, who reach for love but usually wrap their hands around a bottle instead. His characters often find themselves in a tragic cycle: a husband’s drinking drives his wife to cheat, her cheating drives him to drink even more, and his increased drinking drives him to do some cheating of his own.
It’s a formula, yes, but Bandy, like the great honky-tonk singers before him, elevated it to the level of sublime. In hits like “I Just Started Hatin’ Cheating Songs Today” and “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life,” the records on the radio and the jukebox even play like the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy – they tell Moe’s stories back to him, and say the things that are too difficult for people to say themselves.
Now, at 73 years old, Bandy has decided to tell his story for himself. Lucky Me, his new autobiography, takes the reader from his birth in Mississippi to his current state of semi-retirement in Branson, Missouri. Written with Scott England, the book is straightforward yet filled with idiosyncrasies. It opens, for instance, with an introduction by former First Lady Barbara Bush. One chapter, “The Champ,” offers a partial list of guys Moe punched out during his days on the road.
Bandy’s story begins in Meridian, a railroad hub where his grandfather worked on the same lines as an even more famous country singer, Jimmie Rodgers. Both his parents were musicians. His mother played piano and, when the family moved to Texas, his father joined a group called the Mission City Playboys. “My dad played a lot of the bars and honky-tonks before me,” Bandy says, speaking on the phone from his home in Branson. “He loved all those traditional singers. He also loved the Texas swing music, and he could play all these chords. Man, they had just tons of guitar chords, and he could play all those.”
When Bandy himself picked up the guitar, he booked his first gigs not at bars and honky-tonks but rowdy Polish weddings in the San Antonio suburbs. His break came when he graduated to venues like Fort Worth’s Panther Hall, where his group would back touring stars like Webb Pierce. During one stretch in Lubbock, he played with Tex Ritter, Jim Ed Brown and Bob Wills, one of his father’s favorites. “We were scared to death, and my little band was not all that hot,” says Bandy, “but fortunately Bob had Tag Lambert with him, his guitar player.”
Bandy’s songs play out like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode: If something good happens to the singer in the first verse, it’s inevitably reversed by something bad in the refrain.
It turned out to be the show with Jim Ed that changed Bandy’s life. Backstage, one of Brown’s sidemen, David Barton, invited the singer to Nashville for his first recording session. “At that time almost all the Texas acts that came to Nashville recorded the 4/4 shuffle, Texas-type beat,” says Bandy. “When I came in they started trying to put a shuffle to everything, and I said ‘No, no. I want to sing it, you know, without that.’ I think that’s one of the reasons I found success.”
But success would have to wait. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Moe cut demos in Nashville while supporting his family with a day-shift at his dad’s sheet metal factory in Texas. By 1972, he was ready to quit. He borrowed a loan against his furniture to record what he though might be his last session. It gave him “I Just Started Hatin’ Cheating Songs Today,” the lead single off what would become his debut album of the same name.
The songs off this album and its follow-up, It Was Always So Easy (To Find an Unhappy Woman), pulled off a rare trick, making Bandy both a popular star and a cult favorite. Each one plays out like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode: If something good happens to the singer in the first verse, it’s inevitably reversed by something bad in the refrain. His track “Honky Tonk Amnesia” coined a new term to describe a blackout, and “Doesn’t Anyone Make Love at Home” turned sexual liberation on its head. Everyone is sleeping with everyone in Moe’s world, yet everyone is also completely miserable.
Critics, it seemed, could relate. The Village Voice went so far as to name Bandy “the Jesus Christ of c&w,” and country historian Bill Malone wrote that his old-school, honky-tonk sound “cuts like a breath of fresh air through the fetid morass of country pop.” But unlike the journalists, Bandy himself didn’t assign much moral weight to his so-called traditionalism: “I just sang what was best for me, what I felt good singing, and the ‘traditional’ music was just right down my alley.”
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.