Friday, July 4, 2014

They're an American Band~The Story of Seattle's Hartwood by Cheryl Rolcik-Wilcox


If you’ve been to a live music show in Seattle at some point over the last 30 years, it’s almost a statistical impossibility that you haven’t seen at least one Hartwood member performing live.   If you’re a fan of Pacific NW metal, punk, grunge, rock, disco, or country, you’ll undoubtedly recognize the names of the musicians who make up the foundation of Hartwood.

Hartwood’s roots began under a blue tarp in the rain on a group camping trip in 1991, as the two founding members of the band and their co-campers chopped through a large tree for firewood.

As they reached the center of the tree, the middle came out in a large chunk and someone observed, “Hey – heartwood!  Ain’t that the country band that does ‘Dammit Woman Don’t Press Charges, or You’ll Be Sorry One Fine Day?’”   The campers shared a laugh, but before the trip to the woods was over, the seed that eventually grew into Hartwood was planted.

The joke took on the beginnings of reality when Russ Stefanovich returned to the city and shared the lyrics and a basic chord structure for “Dammit Woman” with fellow camper, Todd Ainsworth.   Russ and Todd created their “cousin brother” alter egos, Cleetus and Murl Hartwood respectively, and continued to joke about their fictional band “Hartwood,” spelled that way because Cleetus and Murl are, in Murl’s words, illiterate.  

Family and other obligations delayed the band’s full fruition until 1994, when they set about in Cleetus’s basement with a 4-track recorder, and the help of Garth Hartwood (nee Mike Larson from World Funeral, their first writing partner).   They came up with four original songs:  “This Ol’ Trailer,” “I Only Hit Ya ‘Cause I Love Ya,” and “Bubba” were recorded, along with “Dammit Woman,” the song that started it all. 

Cleetus and Murl both shared a lifelong love of old style country music.   Murl grew up with his dad playing in a bar band and spinning Willie Nelson albums, while Cleetus knew he could draw inspiration from childhood memories of “runnin’ logs on the peninsula with his granddad.”   They decided to move forward and turn the fictional Hartwood into a real country music act with their own particular sense of humor.  They even established a “mission statement” for their new musical family:  To infiltrate country music with a punk rock attitude and set it on its heels.


Hartwood performed their first live show at The Tin Hat in Ballard, and completed their first album, Doublewide, in 1997-98.  After an unsuccessful search for a bass player, Cleetus put in double-duty, recording both bass and guitar, and Roy “Woobie” Winston (who also played with Cleetus in Morphius, Black Nasty, and others) took on the alias of RJ Del Negra and joined on drums.  Billy Bob Hartwood played harmonica and hand percussion, and hired gun Tex Styles (aka Steve Bishop), played pedal steel and fiddle.

Garth Hartwood moved away soon after the original songs were written, and Billy Bob Hartwood remained an active member of Hartwood until the late 1990s.  Tex Styles performed a few live shows with Hartwood, then moved on to other projects.  Sadly, he passed away a few years ago.  The ever-rotating cast of early Hartwood would soon begin to solidify when a new couple moved in next door to Murl. 

Murl and his wife went to dinner at the new neighbors’ house, and learned that Chuck had a couple of guitars, a nice amp, and a set of harmonicas.   After Murl heard Chuck play, Chuck was invited to come to Hartwood’s next practice (which was then held in a storage unit in Seatac).  Murl and Cleetus both agreed that Chuck would fit in well with Hartwood.  Cleetus mentioned that he thought it would be really cool if Chuck could play banjo.  The next week Chuck showed up with a banjo, saying he’d been looking for an excuse to learn for a long time.  Chuck was in, and was given a new name:  Lee Harvey Hartwood.

After RJ’s departure in the early 2000s, Murl and Cleetus reached back into the past for a replacement drummer:  Jerry Zeigler was technically Hartwood’s first drummer.   Jerry was Cleetus’ band mate in the well-known metal band Coven, and had played with Hartwood to see how their original songs sounded live.  Jerry officially joined up and was christened Rufus Hartwood.  In addition to Coven, Rufus has played with Death Squad, Mosquito Hawk, and more than a dozen other bands.  At one point, he was approached to sit in as Nirvana’s drummer, but was too busy with his own projects.   Rufus was recently awarded the title of “Best Olympian” by the Weekly Volcano magazine. 

Hartwood began work on more songs, and were joined by Chris Fox.  Chris had formed the well-known Seattle metal band Bitter End with his brother Matt in the late 1980s, of which Cleetus was also a member.   Chris became Hartwood’s bass-playing “kosher cowboy,” Saul “Doc” Hartwood.  Saul helped with writing and performed live with Hartwood until he took a leave of absence to join Geoff Tate (from Queensryche) with his solo project and tour.

During Saul’s leave from Hartwood, brother Matt Fox filled in and eventually took over bass duties full time as Henry Lee Hartwood when Saul left to finish his doctorate and became a professor at an out-of-state university.  Saul is now teaching as Dr. Fox and lives in Kansas with his growing family.  In addition to Bitter End, Henry Lee also performed in Dr. Unknown, Dinsdale, Rockaraoke, Tinn Lizzy, The Squirrels, Zombie Jihad, and Camarosmith.

Mark Sisson (from Asleep at the Wheel) was a talented lap steel player who was recruited to join the ranks of Hartwood.  He took the name Slim Hartwood, and at Cleetus’ suggestion, locked himself in his house for four days straight and taught himself to play the pedal steel.  He played on Hartwood’s next album, Working on Tomorrow’s Hangover… Today, then moved to St. Louis to pursue love and a new career as a pedal steel player.   Violinist Dick Murray joined up and took on the title of Cousin Dick Hardwood, Fiddlist.  Dick remained with Hartwood for several years before departing to pursue other endeavors. 

Hartwood was beginning to take shape as the band it is today, with the core members in place for the next decade.  Other side projects were taking place while the band continued playing live and recording.  Cleetus and Henry Lee formed Tinn Lizzy (a Thin Lizzy tribute) with drummer, Tyler Lindsey, aka Ted Kaczynski Hartwood.  Tyler was a longtime fixture in the local music scene, having played with North American Bison among others, and played with Hartwood for a short time.

The Gangstas of Love was another sideline project, which included Cleetus and Lee Harvey, along with future Hartwood member, keyboard player Josh Wilson.   Josh was a founding member of a group called Bloomer, and after they played a show with Hartwood in Olympia, Josh became entwined in the Hartwood saga for the next several years and was renamed “JT Hartwood.” 

The next Hartwood release, Enumclaw, was recorded at Audible Pop and Zulu studios in Seattle.  The drums and mix were done at Zulu on Gary Wright’s “Dreamweaver” mixing console, with the bulk of the overdubbing done at Audible Pop. 

The band added a new element to the mix on Enumclaw: Janet Adams initially provided the vocals for the feminine half of Hartwood’s first country duet, which was subsequently performed live by Annie Wilson (also a founding member of Bloomer), who adopted the moniker Squeaky Fromage Hartwood.  Squeaky eventually left Hartwood to become a full time Disco Cowboy

When Gangstas of Love needed a replacement bass player, they hired John “Jet” Pagano, who has performed with many bands over the years, including Men from Mars, Roller, Lesbian Muff Divers, and most recently Guns of Nevada.  When Murl needed shoulder surgery, Henry Lee filled in for him on guitar, leaving room for Jet to move into the temporary role of Hartwood bass player.  Jet became Jethro Hartwood, and was unceremoniously (and, it turned out, temporarily) laid off upon Murl’s recovery.  Murl’s second shoulder went out, and Jethro became Hartwood’s permanent bass player. 

Hartwood worked hard to earn their “outlaw country” status.  Misadventures include liberating their gear from a locked and paid for storage unit (from which they’d been locked out by a crooked manager).  After removing their belongings, they left behind garbage.  Tons of garbage.  Brought from their homes and left behind in trade for the thousands of dollars of equipment the manager had tried to steal.


Hartwood played several festivals and traveled for shows throughout the Pacific NW.   At Chumstock in Leavenworth, too much sun, liquor, and fun had Cleetus vomiting offstage between songs.  A last call disagreement in a store after a show in Olympia resulted in one unnamed Hartwood member breaking his toe when he kicked a planter in a fit of beerless rage.

At the Sun & Surf Biker Rally in Ocean Shores, Rufus nearly burned down a local nightspot with a match, napkin, a shot of 151, and a low hanging sail.  A scathing letter was received from the hotel regarding the complete state of disarray one of the band’s rooms, cigarette smoking, and drug usage.  The biker crowd was pleased with the band’s performance, until Cleetus told a joke onstage that was so offensive that it upset the bikers.  Yes: Hartwood offended bikers.  The band was not asked back the following year. 


At one show at the Stanwood Hotel, the band decided to play their ever-popular (okay, actually totally inappropriate) songs “Gang Rape on a School Bus,” and “Flat Top Head,” only to have the entire audience walk out and refuse to talk to them at the bar post-show.  This show marked the last time either of those songs were played live, until Turd Helmet recently played “Flat Top Head” live.  Unlike the members of Hartwood, Turd Helmet has no qualms about clearing a room. 

A weekend in Ferndale with no air conditioning on the hottest weekend of the year resulted in Murl mistakenly thanking “Fernwood” onstage.  Cleetus and Lee Harvey flew to Renton mid-way through the weekend to perform on a parade float as Gangstas of Love and made it back in time for the second night’s show, during which Cleetus also erroneously thanked “Fernwood.”  The hotel in Ferndale had an active murder investigation during their stay, and while details are slim, since the statute of limitations has run out, it should be safe to report that Rufus nearly burned that town down as well. 

Villains of Yesterday at The Xanaland BBQ for Special Monkeys 

Current Hartwood members are lifers, Cleetus and Murl, together with Henry Lee, Rufus, Jethro, and Lee Harvey Hartwood.   During his time in Hartwood, in addition to the bands and side projects previously mentioned, Cleetus also performed with The Family and Midnight Idols, and can currently be seen performing with metal band Demon Dogs.  Murl can regularly been seen playing with The Disco Cowboys, along with Jethro, who also recently joined Villains of Yesterday.  Henry Lee performs regularly with Zero Down and with two-decades old KISS tribute band, Gene’s Addiction.  Lee Harvey can also be seen slinging the banjo with The Shivering Denizens, who have a song dedicated to Hartwood called “Hartwood Train.”  Rufus still regularly performs with Olympia’s Death Squad and Mosquito Hawk


At present, Hartwood is completing work on their forthcoming album Hartwood ALIVE II, which is nearly finished being mixed at Hazard Studios by Robert Burbank. 

Hartwood's 20th Anniversary show was held June 14th at Slim's Last Chance Chili Shack and Watering Hole in the Georgetown area of Seattle. Their next performance will be at the 5th Annual Cornbread Ball outside in the "Flatbed Amphitheater" at Slim's on July 12th. A dozen other acts will be joining Hartwood to raise monkey for Childhood Cancer Sucks -The Jakob Ellis Foundation 

Go to this link for event details: