When Billy Joe Huels arrived in Seattle’s University District in 1989, the grunge era of music was in its infancy. But Huels, who originally hails from St. Louis, had grown up with roots, blues and southern rock, and he had to go deeper into the Seattle area’s musical history to find a local connection to the sound he loves.
“You just didn’t hear as much of those types of influences, so I had to back into the Seattle music scene, before grunge, and find bands like the Wailers, the Ventures, Don Rich — Buck Owens’ side man — is from Tacoma, Loretta Lynn spent some time up here,” he said. “There is a lot of roots history in Seattle, but it just came before the grunge era.”
Huels ended up bringing a little Americana flavor to the Emerald City when he and his bandmates started the Dusty 45s in 1997. The band draws inspiration from a variety of musical genres, “from the roots of rock, rhythm and blues, honky-tonk and jazz,” as the band’s bio puts it.
“We’re old-school in the sense that everything you see is written and played and produced by us — standup bass, two guitars, trumpet and drums. If you want to experience music the way it was created, the way rock ‘n’ roll was created, then the Dusty 45s are your band.”
Huels describes the band as “craftsmen of the art of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“We don’t rule out influences,” he said. “There’s jazz, and blues, and gypsey music, and surf, punk rock … but mostly it’s just a good time.”
That doesn’t mean the band has operated in a silo, however. Huels said a great thing about Seattle’s music scene is that, “if you stick around long enough, you’re going to become friends and meet everyone from every genre.”
Case in point: Mark Pickerel of the Screaming Trees was the Dusty 45s’ drummer for almost five years, Huels said. “We were probably one of the longeset-standing bands he played with after the Screaming Trees,” he said. “It’s a big community, Seattle, and bands that have been around for decades continue to cross paths.”
Outside of the band itself, one of Huels’ local claims to fame is having starred in Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater’s production of Buddy in 2007, a musical depicting the life and career of rock pioneer Buddy Holly.
“The music I write is based on those early influences, kind of ’50s and ’60s, like the roots of rock ‘n’ roll,” Huels said. “So I studied a lot of those artists, and Buddy Holly was always one of my heroes. If we’re going to do a cover, it’s going to be something like an obscure Buddy Holly tune, or something from that era.”
The Buddy Holly role wasn’t one Huels sought out, however. The 5th Avenue Theater scouted him.
“They were in the audience at some of my shows,” he recalled. “And they called me up and asked if I’d be interested and if I’d ever acted. And I had never been in a play in my life. So they asked me to audition and I did, and they offered me this role. And so all of a sudden I went from being a touring rock ‘n’ roll musician to starring on a musical Broadway-style theater stage at the 5th Avenue. It was a fantastic experience and it kind of stuck with me.”
Huels said he’s traveled to Clovis, N.M., where Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded, and to Lubbock, Texas, where Holly grew up. He met Holly’s widow, María Elena, who attended the show at the 5th Avenue Theater. He also got to play Holly’s guitar. “That was an incredible experience,” he said.
After Buddy concluded, the Dusty 45s were asked to back Wanda Jackson, who knew Holly and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Huels said. “She’s credited with being the first woman to write rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “She dated Elvis Presley. … That was another great thing that happened in my career, about 10 years ago.”
Huels tries to put on a Buddy Holly tribute show about once a year now, he said. (He has one coming up March 11 at the Triple Door in Seattle). Last November, the Vashon Center for the Arts asked him to reprise the role of Buddy Holly for their own production of Buddy, and he agreed to do it. “It was a big success,” he said. “It’s kind of the year of Buddy Holly again for me here.”
When the Dusty 45s take the stage this Saturday in Bremerton, there will be some local flavor on display, Huels noted. Bremerton native Alessandra Rose is one of the opening acts. The local musician recently recorded an album in Nashville, he said.
The Dusty 45s at the Redwood Theater
The Dusty 45s perform with special guests Alessandra Rose and Hot Spring Water, 9 p.m., Jan. 21, at the Redwood Theater, 1520 NE Riddell Rd., Bremerton. 21+. Tickets start at $15. Buy them here.
The Dusty 45s will be touring this summer and releasing new music in the spring. Stay up to date on the band’s website.