Rebel Town features a blues guy, a heavy metal guy, a classic rock guy and a rock ’n’ roll gal. The band includes dyed-in-the-wool blue-collar locals and Southerners stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base. This seven-piece group of 20- and 30-somethings from Sedalia, Knob Noster and Jefferson City doesn’t believe in categorizing music, yet it specifically chooses top-40 country hits for its set list.
Rebel Town is full of contradictions, and that’s central to its success.
“With his guitar riffs, they’re going to have the chicken pickin’, that steel twang. It’s going to have a very heavy blues influence,” drummer TJ York said of guitarist Chuck Lancaster. “But when he does that, you’ve got six other people in the band giving a thumbs-up.”
“This guy’s not a finesse, jazzy drummer,” Lancaster said of York. “It’s loud and pounding.”
“We’ve had people complain because I’m a heavy metal drummer, but hey, that’s what Rebel Town is,” York said.
“(Melanie Michael) is a rock vocalist, Creig (Swafford) is a rock vocalist, and Nate (Tawbush) is the purest singer of all of them; he has that angelic quality,” Lancaster said of Rebel Town’s three vocalists. “But it’s funny — when it comes time to do a country song, it all meshes. In our own way, it sounds good.”
Rebel Town — which is rounded out by bassist Jamey Shepherd, Lancaster’s longtime friend, and guitarist Carl Michael, Melanie’s husband — formed in 2007 behind Lancaster’s belief that Sedalia desperately needed a top-40 country band. Still, he didn’t intend to set aside his blues leanings for the new band, nor did he ask anyone else to discard their individuality.
Lancaster hooked Carl Michael with an interesting argument.
“Chuck told me new country is like old classic rock, which is what I love,” Michael said.
As Lancaster and York tell it, their leapfrogging from band to band and genre to genre is due to a desire to find bandmates as dedicated as they are. Still, these two Smith-Cotton graduates had something to learn from Georgian Swafford and Alabaman Tawbush, both active duty airmen. After a day on the base, the pair change into their band clothes, but their military discipline doesn’t go into the hamper with their military threads.
“They bring that extra level of professionalism, that maturity, that drive,” Lancaster said. “Every ounce of what they do (in the Air Force), whether they realize it or not, it does cross over into the band.”
Swafford and Tawbush are living proof that a person can be disciplined and creative at the same time.
“There are so many artistic people in the Air Force,” Swafford said. “Being military-minded and being centered on duty does not take away your personal drive and artistic nature — it makes it stronger.”
“It’s all about flipping a switch. You just gotta know what part to turn on at that particular time,” Tawbush said. “At work, we’re very different. Even these guys (in Rebel Town) probably wouldn’t recognize us. It’s all about knowing when and how to flip the switch.”
Fittingly, Swafford was wearing a “Batman” belt buckle during Rebel Town’s May 20 show at Dickie-Doo Bar-B-Que.
“It’s very much a ‘Batman’ thing,” he said. “That’s the way it makes you feel. It’s a release. These guys are a family to us. And whenever you have to stay straight-laced and don’t know how long your hours are going to be, to have a release like this, it’s gold.”
“It’s like therapy,” Tawbush said.
The other musicians appreciate not only what Swafford and Tawbush bring to the band, but also what they give to their country. York is quick to point out that the use of the stars-and-bars in the Rebel Town logo isn’t a celebration of the Confederacy; rather, it symbolizes the rebellious way the band plays mainstream hits on its own terms.
The flag that means the most to the band is the stars-and-stripes, which is why York spearheaded plans for the June 11 show at Dickie-Doo. Games and activities will start at noon, the band will play at 8 p.m., and proceeds will go to the Show Me Honor Flight, which shepherds World War II veterans to see their memorial in Washington, D.C.
“We have been thinking about getting away from that logo,” Swafford said. “What it means to us is an unrestrained view on music between rock and country and blues. Everything is thrown in and it’s us, because every single person comes from a different musical background. And when you mash that together, it’s completely rebellious. That’s where it came from. However, you do find that people are sensitive to that image, but in the end it’s a piece of artwork.”
And in the end for Rebel Town, it’s about making good art. After a long layoff in 2009-10 when Swafford and Tawbush were especially busy with Air Force duties, the band found its second wind with a steady diet of Missouri gigs in the last year. Now they want to record a full album, especially since Melanie Michael — who provides keyboards and the lone female voice — rounded out the band’s sound when she joined in April.
“Now everybody has that itch again,” York said. “We are all of the opinion that it’s time to start working stuff up. There are a lot of flavors we’re getting ready to put together in a big old witch’s brew and put something out.”
“If these guys weren’t locked as tight as they were to their careers, these are the guys I’d pack up and move to Nashville with, because they’re good enough to do it,” Lancaster said. “The reason a lot of bands rotate members is because of the (jerks). You got the guy who wants to play music drunk. We make sure we walk the straight and narrow. It’s about the music.”
Playing in a tight, professional band is a buzz in itself, Swafford said.
“It’s a unique thing when you can stand next to people and feel them and they don’t even have to be talking,” he said. “And we feed off each other. That’s how the best music is made.”