The Amazing Rhythm Aces - Whatever Happened To......

First Published in Country Music International, November 1997

Having made their mark in the late 1970s, the Amazing Rhythm Aces played a wild card in 1981 and split. Now reformed, the band are set to release a new LP, the aptly titled OUT OF THE BLUE.

We had reached a point of diminishing return. We were on the road so much that our writing output suffered drastically, and that’s where you make it or break it. Plus, when you’ve got a six-man band, that’s a lot of people to take care of.” Russell Smith, lead singer with the Amazing Rhythm Aces, is explaining the band’s demise following a support slot on the Eagles’ sell-out tour for THE LONG RUN.

The Amazing Rhythm Aces, like their contemporaries, the Eagles, Poco and the Atlanta Rhythm Section, were hard to categorise. They blended country with r&b, rock and even a touch of gospel and sped to fame and fortune in 1975 when their single, Third Rate Romance, clambered up the US charts.

A debut album, STACKED DECK, quickly followed and by 1976 the band were on a roll, winning a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance for The End Is Not In Sight, written and sung by Smith. But by the end of the decade, having recorded half-a-dozen albums for ABC/MCA, the group saw record sales slip as the era of Urban Cowboy dawned, and in January 1981, the Aces called it a day.

For the next decade and a half, the band members kept in touch, as each carved out a career. “It wasn’t like we all went to work at the car wash or something,” says Smith, with a laugh. “We stayed in touch. Everybody's been doing interesting things, and when we did get back together, it was a real fun experience to see where everybody had gone with their playing.”

A true American band, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, after a hiatus of 15 years, regrouped and returned to action last year. It was the fans that encouraged the band to get back together, and while the Aces may not be as financially rewarding as the session work its members pursued over the past decade or so, Smith believes it was the right thing to do from a creative standpoint.

“All through that period I had fairly steady requests for material from the Aces’ albums to be released,” Smith explains, “but none of those records could be reissued because they were not ours to license. We had been approached by the Smithsonian Institute for some compilations, and we couldn’t even do that.”

The band’s former labels had never re-released their older recordings on CD, and the major label indifference was exacerbated by an unscrupulous manager who stole the master tapes of the band’s seven albums.

Interest in the Aces’ music was rekindled when Sammy Kershaw scored a massive country hit with Third Rate Romance in 1994. “That helped because the money came at a time when I needed to finance things,” Smith says. “It also gave me some purpose in doing it at that point.”

Shortly after, the group reunited in Nashville and re-recorded the old hits for the CD, RIDE AGAIN, released on their Breaker Records label. There was no marketing plan—the band members simply handed out a few of the CDs, and bassist Jeff Davis, who had a mail-order business, added the CD to his catalogue. A fan put information about the CD on the Internet and orders started pouring in. Within a few months, several thousand of the CDs were sold, more-or-less by word-of-mouth.

With little effort and no grand plan, the Aces were back in business. In response to fans’ demands, they found themselves back on the road and recording a new album. This time round, however, the band is proceeding down an independent, grassroots path. They have no manager, so they do their own bookings and make their own arrangements. “Before, we were always having to take someone else’s advice or direction—or lack of it,” Smith says.

Smith also believes that this 1990s version of the band has kept pace with the times. The only newcomer to the line-up of 20 years ago is Muscle Shoals guitarist Kelvin Holly. “We’re definitely a very muscular band right now. There's a healthy rock influence, but without the decadence,” he jokes. “We’re not decadent anymore. When you know the consequences, it’s a little harder to be that way.”

The new album, OUT OF THE BLUE, combines a mix of country, blues, rock, soul and bluegrass. A little heavier than most country bands, but a little countrier than the average rockers. High-tech on the Internet may have paved the way, but old-school musical sensibilities are the backbone of the revitalised Aces. The album was recorded live in the studio with few overdubs and the grooves are there—the same big, fat, rolling rhythms around which the band originally built its sound and reputation. Smith's hard-edged, southern-soul vocals are spot-on – punchy and poignant as ever and filtered through a twang that’s more suggested than realised.

“We have an audience,” maintains Smith, who knows the country market. “A lot of people who listen to country now were raised on bands like ours. They're ready to hear music like this again. This record is a representation of this band at this point. There’s no attempt to recapture the past.”