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Before it was 10 Horse Johnson — a name you might recognize as a brand of outboard motor — Gary Newton and Jay Dover's comedy performance band was called Cole Slaw and the Baked Bean Band. Wary of being pigeonholed as a novelty band, the pair decided to go the double entendre route.
"When I was a kid we had an old aluminum boat with a Johnson 10 horsepower motor on it," Newton says. "It's still a funny name, but it sounds more legit. If people want to make something dirty out of it, that's up to them."
The name, though, is all that's changed since the band began in the late '90s in Los Angeles. The group's m.o. has always been a rowdy mix of country musical comedy and performance art. Newton and Dover were working as actors and, as Newton says, they'd gotten tired of waiting on the phone to ring for callbacks. Listeners in LA, it turns out, revere country music, and they found themselves booking consistent shows as musicians — no small feat in a city scrambling with thousands of acts.
The group attracted the attention of Mark Hart from the bands Supertramp and Crowded House, and eventually got a gig at Molly Malone's in West Hollywood. Their national debut came on the Dr. Demento radio show (where Weird Al first got attention). They're also the house band for Sirius XM Playboy Radio. With as terrific a response as they got in California, they stayed rooted to LA.
"People out there have a great admiration for classic country music," Newton, an Arkansas native, says. "They have a stereotype attached to it, and so it's easy to surprise them. In fact, we were told that we wouldn't be that successful back in the South."
With song titles like "Little Rock and a Hard Place" and "Woo Pig Fever," the Angelenos are probably wrong. 10 Horse Johnson has entertained audiences at Juanita's and the Riverfest Amphitheatre and earlier this year were featured in the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. This week the group will make its theatrical debut at the Argenta Community Theater in North Little Rock.
Newton moved from Arkansas to New York in 1988 to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. His background as an actor is primarily improvisational; while in New York he studied with Martin DeMaat, who had previously been an artistic director at The Second City in Chicago and who was also one of Tina Fey's teachers. He moved to LA and did standup for a few years, but learned that comedy alone wasn't his strength.
"The world of music comedy, even though it's pretty big, wasn't as hard to break into," he explains. "And it was a chance to do something beyond the typical standup and improv acts.
"We have a better sense of humor about ourselves than anybody else. We know how to laugh at ourselves. Musicians aren't used to getting laughs, and audiences in comedy clubs aren't used to getting real musicians."
If the music itself is good and solid, he says, the comedy is that much better. He believes the act is better suited to a theater as opposed to a club, since it's just as much a comedy performance as it is a musical one. That being said, there will be a few serious songs in the repertoire.
Newton cites country music influences such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens. Put that in the pot with improv and standup comedy, and you've got 10 Horse Johnson. The duo is being presented live by The Rep at the ACT Oct. 20, 21 and 22. All shows start at 8 p.m.; tickets are $10 on Thursday and $20 on Friday and Saturday.