Guitarist and singer Jet Weston has always been fascinated with American music from another time and place. So it is no surprise then that he now specializes in a kind of cowboy country music that few others groups around the Northeast perform. To further broaden the appeal of his group, the Atomic Ranch Hands, he periodically busts into other genres, such as classic rhythm and blues and early — or pioneer — rock ‘n’ roll.
Weston agrees and says he is passionate about the real country music, “before they even named it country music,” he says. He brings his unique sound to the Record Collector in Bordentown on Friday, April 1.
While Weston’s home is in Hamilton, his roots are in Helmetta, Middlesex County. That’s where he attended Spotswood High School but didn’t graduate — later receiving a GED and attending Mercer County Community College. Helmetta is also where his mother was a housekeeper and his father worked at Merck and Co. It’s where, during his early years, he frequented the still-thriving Englishtown Auction and found inexpensive LPs and 78s. And Helmetta is also where he taught himself guitar, starting at age 12.
“My mom and pop weren’t very musical, but some of my aunts and uncles used to play records; they were part of that generation, and my old man was a World War II vet who also came out of the Depression,” he says, before talking about other early influences.
“My brother was 11 years older than me. He grew up listening to the Beatles and other stuff. There was a nostalgia craze in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and he was into Victrolas and listened to older music from the time I was about five. Tiny Tim was around doing 1920s stuff, and at Englishtown you could buy a stack of 78s for a dime.”
Music wasn’t the only art that attracted him. “When I was a little kid I was really into Walt Disney. The Disney TV program was on every Sunday night, and we went to Disney World the year it opened,” says Weston, who was so fascinated by Disney animation he started sketching and painting.
When he was 12, the young artist entered a town seal contest and made a lasting impression. “I won the contest, and you still see the town seal I designed that they have displayed. It’s kind of simplified now, but it’s the same design.”
“We grew up in a very creative time,” he says. “There was a lot of art culture back then. I also loved [the TV show] ‘Hee Haw,’ when I was a kid. Back then you had all these variety shows with all these bands on them.”
Pressed for his real last name, Weston declined to divulge it and expressed concerns about dates for high school and his training in film production at MCCC. Weston did say he works as a contract audio engineer for the Food Channel and other cable TV outlets and has done some directing and producing of TV commercials. “I would just prefer you stick with my stage name. My dad was Hungarian and my mother was Italian,” he says
“Every week we would go to Englishtown Auction,” Weston says. “I bought lots of records there for a nickel or a dime. I liked the Beatles and Hank Williams, and I loved early Elvis Presley stuff. It wasn’t just country music that appealed to me; it was all kinds of music. To this day, my record collection is not categorized (by genre).”
Also at Englishtown Auction was a “bunch of guys sitting around playing accordion, and I would sit and play guitar with them. They later moved to the Columbus Farmers Market to play music there on weekends.”
After playing in a succession of Beatle-esque bands, he says, he formed his earliest version of Jet Weston and the Atomic Ranch Hands in 1992. For much of the last decade, aside from himself on guitar and vocals, the band includes Mark Addeo on lead guitar, Joe Murray on upright and electric bass, drummer Tommy LoBue; Isaac Stanford, occasionally on pedal steel, piano player David Striem, and fiddle player Bryan Yank. “All understand my passion and my vision,” says Weston.
He says the Atomic Ranch Hands came from the realization “that nobody was doing this version of country music, this kind of cowboy music, and lately we’ve really been hitting our stride with our sound.” One of the qualities of that sound, he says, is softness: “You can go so much further when you’re playing softer. The bass has all these subtle frequencies.”
The Atomic Ranch Hands’ repertoire includes country music pioneers like Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Gene Autry but also pop music from the 1940s and ‘50s, like Bing Crosby, the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, and even songs like “Teardrops From My Eyes,” made popular by classic R&B vocalist Ruth Brown.
Weston and his Atomic Ranch Hands have no formalized website and no recordings out just yet, but they do have a Facebook page, and Weston does his best to post upcoming gigs on the band’s page. Given that Weston started this group as an avocation, to play at county fairs and farmers’ markets on weekends as well a few select clubs and coffee houses, is it possible his avocation can segue in future years into his vocation?
“I would say no. It’s kind of a dying art. It’s old-school Americana music, singing cowboy music, and we love rock ‘n’ roll, too, Elvis, the Beatles, and Little Richard.”
“It’s funny, the music we play is happy and low-key, and it’s not banging you on the head. I think that’s why it died and that’s why people don’t always get it. You do have to give in to it a little bit,” he says, noting there aren’t a lot of drums involved.
“In this day and age, I like the fact that if people want to hear us, they have to come out and see us play live. That’s another reason why we haven’t put any CDs out,” he says.
“I’m into the mystery of it. I like the old Hollywood thing. A guy had a public image, and whether it was true or not didn’t matter. That’s part of it. I don’t necessarily want to know what Chuck Berry’s personal life was like.”
While Weston doesn’t see his avocation becoming his vocation anytime soon, he says 2016 is shaping up to be the band’s busiest year ever, loaded with farmers’ markets, county fairs, a few outdoor festivals, and even the Trenton Pork Roll Festival in late May.
While their mix of cowboy songs, Western swing, and pioneer rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly tunes is not for everyone, Weston points to the music’s complexities, particularly the Django Reinhardt tunes the band performs.
“You can’t be a chump and play this stuff,” he says, “It’s based in jazz, and if somebody who understands music sees what I’m doing they’re usually pretty shocked. They realize we’re not just three-chording it!”
Jet Weston and the Atomic Ranch Hands with My Darling Clementine, Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Friday, April 1, 7:30 p.m. $12, $15 at door. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.