"They don't make it easy to die in this country." John Howie Jr. hasn't written that sentence into a country song yet, and that's sort of surprising.
In June 2005, Howie was near the end of writing the fourth studio album from Two Dollar Pistols, the hard-line honky-tonk band he's fronted for nearly a decade. The Pistols were starting to talk about heading into the studio. Then Howie's mom died.
It wasn't the first time Howie had lost a parent on the eve of a career milestone. In 2002, just as the band was about to release You Ruined Everything, their second full-length and first for Yep Roc Records, his dad died. Howie remembers that he was single then. Being alone didn't make it any easier.
"I was in a horrible place," Howie remembers. "I was alone, and I wasn't particularly happy about it. The only thing I really had going for me at that point was Two Dollar Pistols."
So he poured himself into the band and kept going. Things actually worked out, too: The Pistols toured the country several times, opened for Merle Haggard, played the Grand Ole Opry and even found themselves in Europe for several festival dates. Hands Up!, their 2004 follow-up, confirmed their status as a band capable of writing new country songs that kicked with old-favorite qualities—that real twang and razor tongue of bygone heroes.
Growing up on what was then a largely undeveloped highway running between Durham and Wake Forest, Howie was close to his parents. As expected, when the second of them died, it hurt like hell.
"As silly as it may sound, it takes your identity away from you," explains Howie, leaning against the wall of a Waffle House in Durham two years later. "I went from being John Howie Jr., lead singer of Two Dollar Pistols, to being this guy who's dealing with the fact that both of his parents are dead. I didn't feel like picking up the guitar very much."
For about a year, Howie didn't really have time to write songs. Dying in America isn't easy, he reiterates: He remembers going to the courthouse to handle estate documents with his sister several dozen times in 2005 and digging through piles of memories at their childhood home. It was tough.
But, unlike when his father died in 2002, Howie had a love interest this time: He was set to be married in July, just a month after his mother died. She wouldn't have wanted to hold off his happiness, he says, so he went forward with the wedding. With no time or fire to be a musician, Howie says having someone around made him feel like a person. Nine weeks ago, his wife, Allie, gave birth to their first son, Dario Ingram Howie.
Things continue to look up: Here Tomorrow, Gone Today, that long-awaited Pistols album that was put on hold by death and life, was just released on 8th House Records, the label Howie co-founded with his Snatches of Pink bandmate Michael Rank (Howie plays drums in that band now). And Howie feels great about it. When he started writing again, he scrapped about half of the original material. With both of his parents dead and a first son on the way, he had a different perspective.
"You go from writing 'I really got drunk last night' to—at the very least—'I got really drunk last night and, now that I'm a certain age, I can't do that anymore. It hurts like hell,'" says Howie, now 36.
When Howie was finally ready, the Pistols gathered their gear, played a handful of shows, hammered out the new songs and went into the studio with Southern Culture on the Skids frontman Rick Miller to record the best album of their career.
"It's nice to know that you're around people that, when you need them to do certain things, they are willing to go that extra mile," he reckons. "It's not easy for me to say, 'Hey, man, I need to take a year off.' But when I was ready...."
Here Tomorrow, Gone Today is the sound of a band coming together and cutting loose, finally getting free of the honky-tonk strictures that made their first three albums predictable, even if strong. Opener "When It Was Over" plays smart on Scott McCall's wiry chops, his fiery coda solo—half barnhouse burner, half Chicago blues screamer—landing as one of the most aggressive moments on any Pistols record. And mid-album gem "I Still Need Her" twists a Tennessee Three trot, putting the beat at an italic slant through the verses but easing the motion back in the chorus.
"Your first couple of records are fairly derivative because you haven't found an exact style yet. You know what you like, and you know what sounds good," Howie explains. "As you go on, you learn how to bring other influences into the whole deal and still be able to make a cohesive album."
Howie attributes that progression to several things, from growing up to taking the time to think about what he was writing. This is the longest-lasting lineup of Two Dollar Pistols that's ever existed, too, and, like Howie himself, this rhythm section—omnipresent drummer Matt Brown and the curiously soulful bassist Mark O'Brien—certainly doesn't come from a pure country background. Howie mentions Public Image Ltd. bassist Jah Wobble when he talks about O'Brien, and Brown—originally from Texas—came to the Pistols after time in a handful of ska and reggae bands. Howie seems fully confident in the band beside him, even at a time when there's finally more to life than the Pistols.
"I'm a lot more trusting now that I've been leading a band for over 10 years. I'm not telling people what to do," says Howie, chuckling in that bottom-of-the-belly baritone that's makes the Pistols so striking. "I'm not ruling with an iron fist like I used to. Not that this group of people would have that."
Two Dollar Pistols release Here Tomorrow, Gone Today with a free show at Southern Village in Chapel Hill Sunday, June 24, at 7 p.m.