Steve Wright has been in at least 10 bands since he was 13. He lived in San Francisco and toured the West Coast in various outfits before moving to Chapel Hill and doing much the same in Country Bears and Hazerai. He played guitar. But he's barely been on stage in four years, or since the last time a motley pack of candidates squabbled for the presidency.
"I think about it all the time," says the 38-year-old father of three. "It's a part of my life that's really missing."
But Saturday night, Wright's absence will end, temporarily at least, when Country Bears perform for the first time in seven years. Like many local bands that come and go without major fanfare or record deals, the Bears played around, toured a bit, released an LP and then simply ended it. But even for a veteran like Wright, Country Bears stand out. He auditioned for the upstart band, then only known as the Bears, shortly after his move to town; the musicianship and songwriting immediately blew him away at that audition. He was prepared to lug instruments, play tambourine, do anything to help the band. They hired him; he not only added "Country" to their name but also helped shape the memorable edge of their snarling tunes.
Of this one last shot with the band, Wright sounds like a kid waiting on Christmas presents: "I'm thrilled. I just can't believe it's happening."
While the current local music landscape might be especially receptive to Country Bears' angular post-hardcore, there will only be this one reunion show. Bassist Andrew Wasson lives in New Rochelle, N.Y., and guitarist Zach Blalock lives in Japan. His move there ended Country Bears in 2005, and he rarely makes it stateside. For one of the first times since the band broke up, Wasson and Blalock will be in North Carolina the same week.
They jumped at the chance: Drummer John Crouch booked the reunion gig, and the four have been independently relearning their parts. The week of the show, there will be a handful of full-band rehearsals.
"We've been talking about doing it for a while, but the stars haven't aligned until now," explains Crouch. Keeping in practice hasn't been a problem for Crouch. The talented, distinctive and very busy drummer plays with Caltrop, Horseback, Airstrip and new project Solar Halos. But he's the only Country Bear still active in music. Wright had to relearn how to sing, especially with this band's vocal cord-punishing hollers.
"With kids, I can't practice yelling," he says. He's been building back up to this wide-open vocal style by singing behind the wheel. Now he can get through Country Bears' entire album without going hoarse, though his practice method isn't totally private. "So I'm sitting in traffic in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, stopped at a light, screaming my face off, trying to practice. And I look over and the person in the car next to me is just appalled, thinking I have road rage."
Part of Wright's attraction to the area a decade ago was his sense that it provided a community receptive to heavy music. "There was a real kind of rocker scene in North Carolina," he remembers. "There still is, of heavy music that's not concerned with indie protocols."
That didn't necessarily help Country Bears: Wright and Crouch agree that the band never fully fit into Chapel Hill's music scene. They weren't heavy enough to be metal and weren't punk enough for that spectrum, and they were too abrasive for the melodic Strokes-worship then so popular. But they did find a refreshing level of support and cooperation Wright hadn't encountered in California, despite their slippery sound. Bands offered each other shows, and other musicians were more civil than competitive.
"That's just not how it works on the West Coast at all," he says. "I was amazed you could go into a place like the Reservoir, and it was full of musicians, but they weren't snotty."
The Reservoir, Carrboro's much-missed home to heavy and aggressive music, had attached practice spaces at that point. Musicians hung out at the bar before and after practice and during breaks. Many bands that played the Reservoir's unassuming floor space also practiced there, making it a home base.
"We were the very first band to play the Reservoir and we had our last show there too," says Crouch. The 29-year-old Burlington native has played in Chapel Hill bands since he was 16. It wasn't until after Country Bears that his involvement expanded dramatically. "That was about the time when I said no to life and said yes to music."
Crouch joined Caltrop the year after Country Bears split up, while he and Wright played together in Hazerai, until Wright's second child was born in 2008. In New York, Wasson publishes a webzine concerning pop culture and science called Dairy River, to which Wright regularly contributes. Blalock, says Crouch, "has found his place in Japan and is doing well. He's been there pretty much since late 2005."
So this is probably it: Four old friends get one last chance to be a band again, to re-embrace an experience that still feels special. If yelling along to the car stereo in Chapel Hill traffic is what it takes to make this logistically frightening reunion happen, says Wright, so be it. This band was his pinnacle, at least.
"I was completely blown away and amazed from the get-go," he says, "which is why it was such a bummer we only lasted like a year or less. But that has a special place in my heart."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of the woods."