In Session: Chris Wisniewski

ALBANY – The world of music has tons of room for all sorts of acts, ranging from solo to large bands. And within that, too, are all sorts of genres and subsets, from original music to tribute acts. For the latter, WailOn is perhaps one of the best examples this area has, musically speaking. Fans of Waylon Jennings, and all of the great, rich country classic tunes, will get a kick out of this band: they know the material, and they honor it so well by playing it meticulously.

Incorporating new music into their repertoire, the band is taking the new model of their tribute act for a spin at Lark Hall on March 4. To purchase your ticket for the event, please click here. I had a chance to sit down with front-man and bandleader, Chris Wisniewski, ahead of the show. What follows is our conversation.

(photo by Stephanie J. Bartik)

Lucas Garrett: Thank you, Chris, for taking time out of your evening to sit down and talk about your project. Tell us a bit about what it is and how it got started.

Chris Wisniewski: Probably about six years ago, I started playing bass with The Spirit of Johnny Cash with Harold Ford. I was playing upright and electric with them for about five years. Somewhere along the way, we started doing a Highwaymen song, and I did the Waylon Jennings. My dad listened to him all the time – I was a metal head all in high school. That re-awakened the interest, and I realized my voice was a good fit.

The more I listened to him, the more I was blown away by the writing and musicianship. I started talking with Archie Anderson, who I was in the band with, “I’d really like to do a Waylon Jennings Tribute!” Finally decided that we’re going to do it; didn’t really know what that means. Had never done a tribute before, but I’d been in a few different bands. I was a front man in a couple different bands, but not to this level: booking the band, and leading the shows and all that.

It was pretty much me and the whole band from The Spirit of Johnny Cash, at the time. That was three years ago, and then the pandemic hit – we all had a dead period, so-to-speak, over a two-year period. Since it started, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had, especially in a band like this that has pedal steel, is instrumentation. Keeping the musicians consistent. I’ve now got only one person, Archie, who’s been with me the whole time. Every other band member is different. Haha.

We’d done the Waylon Jennings tribute for the past two years – doing the theaters and venues I really wanted to play. Recently, we put together a new show, called Tribute to Real Country. There’s still a lot of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Highwaymen… We’ve also added in George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Dolly… a lot of what I’d call “real country artists,” which is a loaded term, I suppose. The first time we’re rolling that show out is March 4th at Lark Hall.

LG: Who’s in your band right now?

CW: There’s six people in the band, sometimes seven. I play bass and sing lead – Waylon and most of the lead male vocals. Peter Bearup on acoustic guitar and harmonica. He does a couple of Willie Nelson songs. I’ve got Thomas Buffe on drums. There’s a Jerry Jeff Walker song that he sings. We have Archie Anderson on electric guitar, and he sometimes plays acoustic. He sings at least one song of Kris Kristofferson. Sarah Mitchell does all our female vocals – she’s a great harmony singer. There’s four of us that can sing harmony, so we have multi-part harmonies on a lot of stuff. Kevin Maul is one of the best pedal steel players in the area. He’s my pedal steel player when he’s in the area – he’s in Florida for half the year. My other pedal steel player is Don Boyajian. He’s also an amazing electric and acoustic guitar player, and can sing Merle Haggard like you’d never heard.

LG: I’m sure you have a lot of conflicting schedules with that many people in the band! How do you make it all work?

CW: That’s a great question. One of the tools I’ve found is called Band Pencil. It’s a resource-management, band-management tool. I use that extensively to bring the band up to speed. We use a Google calendar, and I have to have them send me their “black-out dates,” and then I go based on that.

LG: That sounds like quite the intensive project right there.

CW: It can be. The Achilles’ heel is the pedal steel. Before I found Don, who is my winter pedal steel player… I must’ve talked to everyone in the area. That was a real challenge.

LG: With all the music out there, your dad was a big fan of Waylon Jennings, and that’s how the genesis of that began. But what made you say “OK, I want to add all this other music?” What was the catalyst behind that?

CW: A little bit was to broaden out the appeal. Waylon Jennings is amazing, and we do a very good tribute show – the band is smokin’ and we play the material extremely well. I love singing it. At the same time, there’s a lot of great music adjacent to Waylon. We would hear, “What about Merle? What about George Jones?” Selfishly, some of that stuff is great to sing! I get to stretch out a little bit more on stuff. It’s great music.

We’re still working on some of the new stuff, the George and Tammy stuff. They’re way harder than you ever thought. Until you get to try playing those songs… it ain’t straight cowboy chords. It’s pretty complex stuff, surprisingly.

LG: It sounds deceptively easy – it sounds a lot easier than it really is. When you go to learn it, you’re like, “Huh!”

CW: It’s interesting, even the stuff that is simple – some of the Cash songs when I was learning them on upright bass is similar to what you said. It’s easy, but there’s a lot of space, and it has to be dead-on. The rhythm is very specific. You can very easily lurch into a weird march-beat rhythm, instead of the opposite part of the beat, where it needs to be. To get back out of that is tough. You’re naked; if you make a mistake, everybody’s going to hear it. There ain’t a lot of distortion, or something, to cover it up.

Other pieces like “Stand By Your Man…” A lot of people would probably say it’s a simple song? It’s one of the most challenging songs that I’ve had to learn. It’s got really unusual orchestration to it – unusual changes and timing on it. The guy that worked on it was known for that whole Nashville sound. Those songs sound very simple and that’s one of the reasons they are so appealing – they come across simply and it gives emotion room to come out. There’s depth to them that provides for repeat listening and enjoyment.

LG: For that kind of music, if you’re pushing the beat, or the band is in front and you’re on the back of the beat, it’ll ruin everything.

CW: That’s exactly right. That level of “simple complexity,” if that’s a way of putting it. That music is danceable, it has a great rhythm, but there’s a level of complexity to it.

LG: The average listener won’t be able to tell you why it sounds good, but they always know when it doesn’t sound good. They might not know what is going, but they’ll go “That doesn’t sound right.”

CW: That’s exactly right. One of the reasons I love Waylon Jennings. It’s the bass. Waylon was a master of taking that driving-rock bass and hitting it with that really strong kick drum – Richie Albright’s kick drum. You look at jam bands and a lot of that modern rock stuff people are into now, and it’s a direct descendant of that. That was heresy when he did that, right? It was one of the reasons he was called a country outlaw. That came from his experience with Buddy Holly during the early days of rock and roll.

LG: So, you have that first show with this band in that manner on March 4th at Lark Hall. Where can we get the tickets?

CW: They’re available through the Lark Hall website! You can get them right there at the event page. They’re available by phone, at (518)599-5804, and at the door, as well.

LG: Where else can we see your band?

CW: The Strand Theatre in April; Little Theater on the Farm in June and September; quite a few different places, locally. More so than we’ve been in the past couple years. We’ll be at the Washington County Fair in August and the Schaghticoke Summers Eve concert series and the Fair Haven, Vermont, concert series. All of it is up to date, and can be found at our website, here.

LG: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I may have missed?

CW: We work really hard on the live show. To have it be a lot of fun, but frankly, a much more precise musical experience than you might be used to.

LG: Thank you, again, for your time tonight!

CW: Yeah, Lucas, thank you! We chatted online before, but we’ve never talked face-to-face!

LG: Have a goodnight!

CW: You too.

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