Throughout my luncheon with Oakley Hall frontman Pat Sullivan, I can’t help noticing that he’s missing a finger on his picking hand, in the machine-mauled tradition of Jerry Garcia, Les Paul, or Tony Iommi. Convinced that I’m seeing things, we instead discuss Kinky Friedman’s coked-country lyrics and his bid for the Texas governorship. Only later does Sullivan confirm my suspicions: “Two and a half years ago, I had a tussle with a table saw,” he recalls nonchalantly. “Lost three fingers.”
But even in a group prone to false starts and bulimic with intermittent players (upwards of ten bandmates have come and gone), such tragedy only forged a stronger alloy. Two of Sullivan’s fingers got reattached, and soon after a six-person Oakley Hall lineup cemented itself, with the addition of ex–Broke Revue pounder Greg Anderson and singer-guitarist Rachel Cox. The lineup has proved prolific, releasing Second Guessing this spring, with a third album to follow in June.
Not that Sullivan hitched himself to OH’s ramshackle country-rock covered wagon first. When he first moved down from Massachusetts in 1996, he wasted no time changing his name to Papa Crazee and forming Brooklyn’s fine psych-pummelers Oneida with similarly aliased high school crony Kid Millions. Never mind that he originally made his way as an acoustic folkie, digging Woody and Hank. As Oneida toured the barren rock wasteland of the late 20th century, Sullivan found himself identifying more and more with Loretta Lynn, the Louvin Brothers, and the Carter Family. “I was just feeling my age creeping up,” he admits; in 2001, he fled Oneida for rootsier projects, though he still keeps up with and admires his old band’s work.
While Sullivan’s original intent “was a massive, very communal free-for-all,” the logistics of keeping so many players together gave the group a palpable sense of disintegration and disarray. Early live shows careened between Robitussin-slow country and a rock noise not unlike Buffalo Springfield in all its ragged glory. A breakthrough came when an unemployed Sullivan crossed paths with the similarly jobless Cox and began busking in the subway. “We didn’t do that very often,” Pat says, “But we hit it off—it just made sense for her to sing with Oakley Hall.”
With her roots in North Carolina (and lead guitarist Fred Wallace obsessing over banjo players like Roscoe Holcomb), an Appalachian vibe now courses through the band’s sound, suggesting folk while taking in dirge as well. “I love the fact that we play lyrical music that’s storytelling based,” Sullivan concludes. Nonetheless, “We have elements of the freak-out.”
Second Guessing is out now on Amish Records. Gypsum Strings will be released June 6th on Brah Records.