Better you should sample Hot Apple Pie than try to make sense of its name. That way leads to madness. Suffice it to say that this four-man band, given a fair hearing, can hold its own with any other act practicing country music today.
The band is more or less the brainchild of Brady Seals, who first made a name for himself as a member of Little Texas in the early 1990s. After he left that group in 1995, Seals essayed a solo country career, at one point enlisting the universally esteemed Rodney Crowell as his producer. When little came of that, Seals moved to Los Angeles and tried his hand at pop music. The silence that lingers from that effort tells its own story.
Hot Apple Pie, as a concept, began to crystallize about three years ago. Brady turned to two of his former sidemen — guitarist and vocalist Mark “Sparky” Matejka and drummer Trey Landry — and asked them to join him in forming a band. After that, they drafted bassist-guitarist-singer Keith Horne into the assembly. With that musical package intact, the four put themselves in the hands of producer Richard Landis, whose string of studio successes stretched from Juice Newton to Lorrie Morgan and beyond.
This spring, the band made its debut with the tongue-in-chic “Hillbillies,” a tune that continues to ascend the Billboard country singles chart. Then, in late June, DreamWorks Records released Hot Apple Pie’s self-titled album. The members stress that they played their own instruments for the recording, as opposed to the common and usually more economical practice of using professional studio musicians. The only additional musicians were steel guitarists Paul Franklin and Dan Dugmore.
Although Seals is the logical spokesman for the group, he is understandably weary of having to go through the whole Little Texas thing every time he does interviews. That being the case, he delegated the chore to Matejka, who chats with CMT.com by phone.
“We’re doing some dates now with Hanna-McEuen,” Matejka reports. “We’ve also got dates with Tim McGraw this summer [and some] with Reba McEntire and Keith Urban. We’ve got one coming up … with Lonestar. So we’re just out there hitting the road.”
The bandsmen are used to the road. Matejka has traveled it with Sons of the Desert, the Kinleys, Chely Wright and, most recently, Charlie Daniels; Landry toured with Crowell, Suzy Bogguss and Andy Griggs; and Horne has backed a veritable festival of artists, among them Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker, Trisha Yearwood, Peter Frampton and Lonestar. Seals boasts that he did 322 days on the concert circuit the year before he left Little Texas.
“I’d say we’re doing at least 85 to 90 percent of the [album] on our regular shows,” Matejka continues. “On our normal shows, we’re doing about 60 minutes. So between trying to pick the best songs that we think work well and then putting in some covers, we’re not doing every song. But we’ve done every one [before an audience] at least once.”
The album showcases the band’s vocal and instrumental virtuosity. They turn the Band’s “The Shape I’m In” into a bluegrass romp and Jeffrey Steele and Al Anderson’s “We’re Makin’ Up” into something akin to teen euphoria. Surely, though, the song that has the most country resonance is “Slowin’ Down the Fall,” a barroom weeper Seals sings with Willie Nelson. It’s going to sell a lot of beer.
Seals is the dominant writer on the album, with credits on nine of the 13 cuts. His co-writers here include uncle Troy Seals, T. J. Seals (aka Kizzy Plush), Mike Reid, Dennis Robbins and Crowell.
Matejka says the crowds are warming up to the band now that “Hillbillies” has established itself. “It’s really exciting to notice what’s going on. We’re getting out there and finally starting to see them screaming back [when we sing the song's refrain], ‘Hey, hillbillies!’ In fact, last night we did a show and we got to the last song — you know we save ‘Hillbillies’ for the last — and when we kicked it off, the entire crowd jumped up, ran to the front and started dancing.”
The album emerged so slowly that it’s been delayed gratification for the band. Matejka estimates that it took almost two years to complete it.
“When the record was put together, it wasn’t a record,” he says. “What happened is that we went in and cut four songs on spec, just the ones we wanted to, and we played all the music ourselves. It was just four songs we were proud of. Richard Landis, our producer, took them over to James Stroud [at DreamWorks Records], and James signed us. Basically, he said, ‘Hey, guys, this ain’t broke, so I’m not going to fix it. Go in and finish the record.’ And that’s what we did. I was on the road with Charlie Daniels. Trey was on the road with Rodney Crowell. Keith was on the road with Lonestar. So between all our schedules, it was crazy. To find two days in the row when we were all in town was almost impossible. But we did it. … In that two years, we probably weren’t in the studio — all together — 18 days.”
Even with five distinct musical tastes at work, Matejka says there was little dissension over how a particular song should sound. “Of course, when you have five people in the studio, there’s going to be different opinions. There was never a clash where there was a problem. But there were definitely situations where somebody liked this and somebody else liked that.
“I can give you one example. On ‘Hillbillies,’ I had taken a guitar solo … and we had kind of had it as a triple part. It was overdubbed three times. I was happy with it, but I wasn’t thrilled about it. It was one of those things that everybody liked but I felt needed something better. So one day, after I’d finished recording a bunch of other stuff, I had them pull up ‘Hillbillies.’ I said, ‘Just for grins, I want to put [another] solo on there.’ And I did. When everybody heard it, they went, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s the solo.’ When we finally released the single, the song was so long we had to take the guitar solo out. So it’s not on the single. But if you buy the dance version, it’s there.”
While it’s not certain, Matejka says the rapturous “We’re Makin’ Up” will probably be Hot Apple Pie’s next single.
“That was the first song we cut,” he recalls. “When we went in, we obviously had our hopes and dreams of making some really good music. We all [had] those butterflies, [thinking] ‘Well, here we are. Now we gotta make this thing happen.’ We played the rough tracks [for the song] and came back into the room and listened to the playback. All of us looked at each other and went, ‘We’ve got something here.’”