I spent a Sunday afternoon in a sweltering barn near Mt. Pleasant as witness to a new sound born in the valley, "The Rust Belt Kings."
In February, Joe Zelek and Matt Heusel met in Bridgeport at the Sonny Boy restaurant for breakfast. Zelek had been splitting time between Nashville's country music scene and his Mt. Pleasant hometown the last few years. The local celebrity had some success initially with his group "The Joe Zelek Band," but was feeling burnt out and was seriously contemplating taking a year off from the music business. Heusel was the lead guitar player for the "Trainjumpers," but after the loss of the group's drummer to a national touring artist, he was stuck performing for spotty local gigs.
Following breakfast, the pair drove around together for an hour listening to and talking about music. They quickly realized they shared a common goal. "We wanted to combine our love of good 'ol country music with other beloved influences." Incorporating the twin harmony guitars via the Allman Brothers Band, funky soul licks of the kind once laid down by "The Colonel" Steve Cropper, acoustic-driven roots rock a la "Scarecrow"-era Mellencamp, all the while not straying too far from honky tonk heroes like Haggard and Waylon.
Rust Belt Kings
Co-writing proved almost effortless to the pair. They quickly carved out six fresh songs with Zelek's burnished acoustic and vocal sound center of the mix. "We compliment each other well," said Heusel. "I tend to follow my heart when I write, and Joe has had that Nashville schooling."
"He can recognize the good stuff right away," Heusel said. "We can focus in on that and it just flows from there."
"It was a whole new direction," said Zelek of the writing. "It wasn't really Joe Zelek, and it wasn't Trainjumpers, but we knew we wanted to get the music out there, so we put together a band for the project."
Talk about your "dream band" of local talents. Zelek managed to bring back longtime friend and seasoned rock-driven guitarist Kelly Jones for the project. Jones had been playing with a Pittsburgh-based rock group but is excited about the chance to play the new music. His creative ability to ad-lib a transcending guitar riff or just blow away a crowd with a solo was apparent even in rehearsal.
"Until we get some girls for background vocals, Kelly is handling the high harmony," quipped Heusel.
Heusel brought groovy bassist Scotty Harkness from The Trainjumpers on board. Scotty is laying down the foundation and also adding a layer to harmonies for the band. While very capable of taking his turn at a solo, for now he's content with his role.
The band was almost complete, except for some drums.
Zelek, originally a drummer, was a big fan of local talent Alex Peck, and after a jam session with the foursome, Peck agreed to commit, and the Rust Belt Kings were born.
"This is an old school classic idea of what it means to be a band," said Zelek. "We all bring our own thing to the table and when we mix those ingredients, it is magical."
"Our head space is a lot of 70's with this project," Zelek added. "It is a creative cohesive fabric we weave."
"We draw energy from each other," Zelek related. "When we are playing, we all mesh and get lost in the music."
"We just started playing together as a group, but it feels like we have been together for 20 years," Heusel agreed. "It is very comfortable and so much fun performing with these guys."
"New single 'Tire Fire Revival' pretty much sums up what the band is all about: down-home lyrical themes, country twang, some rock'n'roll soul, with one heck of a groove," stated the band's web page. The single is part of a four-track CD which features Allman Brothers keyboard player and songsmith Johnny Neel.
"I met Johnny when I was writing in Nashville," Zelek said. Neel wrote songs recorded by acts such as the late Keith Whitley, Restless Heart, The Oak Ridge Boys and The Forrester Sisters.
"We hit it off and became friends, and he offered to play keyboards for me on my recordings. This was the first time I felt like I had anything worthy of sending him to cut a track for."
The four-song EP will be available for fans at Jamboree in the Hills, where the band will perform one of it's first public performances.
"I don't know if you would say I have a lot of guts or if they have a lot of guts," Zelek said when asked about debuting in front of the Jambo crowd. "I have always been blessed to be around good musicians, and these guys are exceptional, so I really don't have any fears that it will be anything but great."
The Rust Belt Kings will take the stage on Saturday at approximately 2:45 p.m., and the 45-minute set will feature some original songs and some covers.
For fans wanting a preview, the group will be playing Friday, July 12 at the Black Sheep Vineyard near Harrisville with a 7:30 p.m. start. They will also take the stage for the Tuesday Night Kickoff Party at Jamboree in the Hills beginning at 8 p.m.
They will perform a free concert July 23 at the St. Clairsville Amphitheater. This is a free, all ages show, or for $25, you can purchase a VIP ticket.
For more information on the band or upcoming tour dates, visit their web page at rustbeltkings.bandpage.com
Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org