It’s one of the strangest stories in music: Not long after recording the 1978 album Lord, Don’t Let Me Die in a Cheap Motel, country duo Banjo and Sullivan disappeared from the infamous Kahiki Palms Motel, presumed murdered by a band of backwoods psychopaths dubbed “The Devil’s Rejects.”
Guitarist Roy Sullivan and banjo player Adam “Fingers” Banjo’s legacy lives on through their old-fashioned country anthems such as “I’m at Home Getting Hammered (While She’s Out Getting Nailed)” and “I Don’t Give a Truck.” Both songs are part of The Ultimate Collection 1972-1978, a greatest-hits package just released on Hip-O/Universal. And with their appearance in the new horror film, The Devil’s Rejects, which dramatizes their mysterious fate, the time seems right for a Banjo and Sullivan renaissance.
Even the guy who ordered their murders, rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie, admits their deaths have deprived the world of some of the funniest country music in ages. “Well, y’know, there could be some other lost demos out there,” Zombie tells Rolling Stone apologetically. “These are only their greatest hits. They did a lot of recording.”
Actually, Banjo and Sullivan began as products of Zombie’s always-fertile imagination. He created the faux country act as part of The Devil’s Rejects, his follow-up to the 2003 horror flick House Of 1,000 Corpses, and got Lew Temple (Banjo) and Geoffrey Lewis (Sullivan) to portray the down-home duo.
The new movie is grittier, bloodier and more realistic than House Of 1,000 Corpses, and Zombie figured that Banjo and Sullivan would look right at home next to his soundtrack choices. “The vibe of the film was Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, and some of our characters look like they’re in the Allman Brothers,” he says with a laugh.
Wondering what Banjo and Sullivan might have sounded like, Temple handed Zombie a copy of Country Soul Brother, the latest album from his friend Jesse Dayton, an Austin singer and guitarist. Dayton, who’s played with Nashville outlaws like Waylon Jennings but admits he knew almost nothing about Zombie, didn’t take long to get into the Devil’s Rejects spirit once Zombie invited him out to Los Angeles.
“Me and Lew got a pretty large bottle of White Label Jim Beam,” Dayton drawls, “and just started writing all this ridiculous shit.”
When they premiered the results of their three-day writing session for Zombie acoustically, “I knew right then and there that this record was gonna have a life of its own,” Zombie recalls. “Now I realized we had to get a real record company involved, because these songs were so fuckin’ good.”
Zombie hooked up a deal with Universal, and Dayton entered the studio in Austin with a crew of top session men to bring Banjo and Sullivan to life, drawing on the politically incorrect bluntness of David Allan Coe and the classic sounds of Seventies AM country to create familiar-yet-twisted tunes like the S&M-themed “Honeymoon Song” and “Dick Soup.”
While Banjo and Sullivan seem likely to stay under the ground — Zombie says he has no plans to revive any Devil’s Rejects characters in future films — the challenge now is how to keep the duo’s work alive. Zombie, who’s ready to turn his attention back to music as he joins Ozzfest later this month, admits, “It would be kinda hard to tour with these guys, ’cause they’re dead.”
However, Dayton, who’s already playing a few Banjo and Sullivan songs in his solo sets, says one possibility is touring as a Banjo and Sullivan tribute band. “People have just been goin’ buck wild over this stuff,” Dayton says. “We wanna have the chicks in the go-go boots singin’ ‘I Don’t Give a Truck’ and all that shit. It’d just be insane.”