In the corner of Callaghan’s on a Wednesday night, two Oriental rugs cover the tiled floor. A red-and-white Gordon’s Fresh Potato Chip tin sits to next to a glass of whiskey on a small table in front of a microphone stand. There is no set list or plan as Deluxe Trio plays anything from Keb’ Mo’ and Ray Charles to John Prine and Bruce Cockburn. Songs are pulled down into tight vocals and blistering bluegrass instrumentals with fingers and voices that know where to go make each song sound like their own.
Deluxe Trio is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are some of the best musicians in Mobile: Steve “Duck” Varnes (guitar, lead vocals, songwriting); Stan Foster (bass, vocals); and Phil Proctor (mandolin, guitar, vocals).
“It has been fun to put songs together with these guys with our close harmonies that blend well,” says Varnes, nicknamed “Duck” because his grandfather said he looked like a Muscovy duck when he learned to walk. “Phil is a phenomenal player with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Stan came out and played with me one night and I liked him from the beginning. We have all played music for a long time, but this is the freshest and most energizing combination that I can imagine right now. I was in a writing slump for 35 years, but I was inspired by this band and the songs started coming to me.”
Deluxe Trio’s music zigzags among bluegrass, folk, country, jazz, and blues as the stringed instruments provide the rhythm and the melody for musicians inspired by Merle Travis, Doc Watson, John Prine, Bill Monroe, Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Allman Brothers, The Doobie Brothers, and Paul McCartney. There is never a rehearsal, and the music created in the moment. Foster is steady at bass, while Varnes provides grit and gravity with his weathered, soulful voice. Proctor’s mandolin weaves and dances through each song sounding like laughter, tears, horns, or strings.
“Our sound is hard to describe,” Varnes says. “It is easy to label us as bluegrass because of Phil’s mandolin and high tenor voice, but we are Americana with a heavy dose of bluegrass. We can play with great energy, but we can be restrained, beautiful and peaceful and then get nasty. It’s almost like blurring your eyes and staring at a Christmas tree or the feeling you get biting into a perfectly seasoned meal. The texture is there, the flavor is there, and it lingers. It happens every time we get together and play.”
The band started playing together a year and a half ago at Mellow Mushroom in Mobile and developed its style with a mix of original tunes and obscure songs from the public domain. “We enjoy playing songs from the ‘20s that no one else has heard of and doing our own interpretation,” says Varnes. “The adrenaline kicks in and the magic is in the improvisation. If it becomes too structured then it becomes automatic and it won’t be fun.”
“When I first saw them play I was transformed back to another age in American history,” says famed guitarist and music producer Rick Hirsch, who produced Deluxe Trio’s album. ”Music is a mind-altering and transforming substance. I am interested if an artist can do that for me, but it doesn’t happen very often. Steve has more character in his voice than a Steinbeck novel. His renderings of a song are sincere and believable.”
Everything Deluxe Trio plays is open to interpretation with Foster’s bass down low, Varnes’ guitar in the middle, and Proctor’s mandolin on top. “We rarely step on each other’s musical territory,” says Proctor. “With only three instruments in the band, each one has a specific job to do, and they are all about rhythm. One of the strengths of bluegrass is when you have no drummer/percussionist, you have to make up the difference with rock-solid rhythm. It’s a foreign concept to musicians who have never played that type of music, but when it’s done well, you don’t miss the drums.”
Deluxe Trio’s chemistry goes beyond the music to personality and stage presence. There is teasing and comedy in comments between songs or talking in different voices. “We have fun every time we play together,” says Foster. “We feed off each other and it is good that people see us laughing,”
“Sometimes the songs I don’t play very much sound better than the ones I do,” says Foster after playing an audience request.
“You can say that again,” says Varnes.
Nobody Don’t Know, is built on the band’s loose and free style. In Hirsch’s H20 Studio, Varnes, Foster, and Proctor sat together on stools set in a triangle and recorded eight tracks the first night. “They were prepared and ready, and the record sounds like you are sitting in the same room with them,” says Hirsch. “The album is an honest capture of them, warts and all, with very little embellishment and no Auto-Tuning. They didn’t need the metronome of a click track to keep them in time together, and if someone made a mistake, we left it in.”
The album contains a mix of original songs written by Varnes and Proctor, and covers of blues and bluegrass songs such as “Make me a Palet on Your Floor” and “9 Pound Hammer.” The title, Nobody Don’t Know, is a translation of “personne ne sais pas” that Varnes’ mother, from Franklin, Louisiana, used to say in broken French. The phrase is the lonely soul of “The River:” Personne ne sais pas, Personne ne sais pas. This emptiness inside.
The songs on Nobody Don’t Know are simple progressions that center on tales of sadness, darkness, and longing for home and another time. “The King of Marvin Gardens” is the story of a man who disregarded his father’s advice, went after the hustle, and died an early death with nothing to show but faded pictures on his wall:
I am the king of Marvin Gardens, sovereign of the throne/ I am the king of all around me, but there ain’t nothing that I own.
Each member takes a turn at lead vocals as Proctor sings about the pain of the frying pan and Foster sings about escaping a broken heart.
I would rather be in some dark holler where the sun don’t ever shine than to be in a big city in a small room with you on my mind.
Varnes is at his pained narrative best in Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand?”
There once was a time when everything was cheap,
But now prices nearly puts a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill,
We just feel like making our will
Foster, Varnes, and Proctor are more than musician’s musicians. Proctor started playing guitar when he was 12, switched to trumpet in junior high and high school bands, then played guitar in college bands. Today, Proctor teaches history at McGill-Toolen. Varnes is an electrical engineer at Mitsubishi Polysilicon making high-purity polysilicon for the computer industry
Foster has played bass for 20 years with the popular band Rollin’ in the Hay and regularly opened for big acts such as George Jones and the Doobie Brothers. The band has slowed down from 300 nights a year to weekends and Foster needed something new. “Playing with Rollin’ in the Hay is now memorized songs and playing by rote. I played that way for so long that it was hard to break out of that format,” says Foster. “Steve wanted me to experiment on things I’ve never played before. I was nervous at first to learn to trust my instincts and come in and try something new, but this has taken me to another level. I have learned how to play where it needs it and I don’t have to regurgitate.”
Varnes was in a Mobile cover band in the late ‘70’s called Flat Rock, but he slid the guitar under the bed for 15 years, attending college on the G.I. Bill and raising his children. “The last child went to school and I told my wife I want to play again,” he says. “I went to Traders because I knew there were people my age there. I got a gig on Friday nights and I have been at Traders for 20 years.
“One of my challenges now is I’m older,” says Varnes. “Time is everything and I don’t take what is happening with Deluxe Trio for granted. I have been fortunate for as long as I have played this town and I get to play what I want to play.
“We have all gone through different phases and reincarnations and we are grateful for this chance and the people who come out to hear us,” he says. “We are building a devoted following of people who appreciate our harmony and texture. I am exactly where I want to be and I have found my identity with this band.”
Photos by Stephanie Drake and Michelle Stancil