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Members include Ellen Gray (died in 2002), bass; John Howie, Jr. (born in 1969 in Chapel Hill, NC), lead vocals, guitar; Scott McCall (joined group, 2002), guitar, backing vocals; Neal Otto Spaulding, bass, backing vocals; Mark A. Weaver, drums. Addresses: Record company--Yep Roc Records, P.O. Box 4821, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-4821. Website--Two Dollar Pistols Official Website: http://www.twodollarpistols.net.

Formed in 1995, the Two Dollar Pistols, led by baritone singer John Howie, Jr., have become known as a country band with a honky-tonk edge inspired by classic country tunes and singers. Their first album, On Down the Track, was released in 1997. Since then, they have gained fans nationwide, with four albums and nationwide tours across the United States.

Howie, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina musician, grew up hearing country music; his father was a country fan, and his mother played jazz piano. He started playing drums when he was ten years old, but as a teenager scorned country music and jazz because his parents listened to them. "I thought all of that was the most ridiculous music; it just didn't have anything to do with where I was coming from," he told Marisa Brickman of Insound online.

Howie, who did well in high school, attended college for a year, but then dropped out. He was already making a living as a musician, so college seemed irrelevant to him; he already knew that he wanted to spend his life making music. He went to England to bum around when he was 19. While in England he began playing with an American style punk rock band. To his surprise, his new bandmates loved country music. When Howie got over his shock at finding young people who liked country and jazz, he began listening to them, too.

Howie also began playing guitar, partly because he began writing songs and needed to play them. Howie told Brickman, "When I got to be about 25 my personality changed a lot. When I was growing up, I was much more dark and brooding, sort of a shy person. When I got into my mid-twenties, I became less like that." He found that guitar allowed him to express himself in a different way than playing drums did.

Group Took Form

In 1995, Howie and some friends started the Two Dollar Pistols. The name was suggested by a friend, but as soon as Howie heard it, he remembered that his father used to use the expression, "She's as hot as a two-dollar pistol" for a woman who looked good. Although he initially thought the name was somewhat silly, it stuck, and eventually he came to like it.

Howie told Brickman that he was playing drums for a living in 1995, and the band was "a side project." He found it somewhat difficult to step away from the drums and take his place as the lead singer of the Pistols. "You have to face people very directly and worry about what they're gonna think about what you're singing," he said. However, he decided that he would simply be himself and be straightforward with the audience, instead of "posing or putting on any kind of airs."

Howie's understanding of his parents' generation's love of country, as well as his youthful return to it, has helped the band gather a diverse audience. Howie told Rick Teverbaugh in Country Standard Time, "Our best response has come from older people who can't relate to today's contemporary country and the younger people who haven't been exposed to traditional country and find it as something new." However, he doesn't want to simply replay old tunes exactly as they were originally recorded, but to play new songs in the spirit of the old.

Never Fit Country Stereotype

In keeping with this, the Pistols have never fit into any stereotyped niche within country music. Howie told Brickhouse that they are "too country" for the mainstream Nashville country scene--which, ironically, is much closer to rock than to any other genre--but they are also too low-key to fit in with "super retro rockabilly," stating, "You know, those guys with perfect pompadours and rolled up pants. I just don't believe in uniforms like that." Of mainstream country music, he said that he used to enjoy it when some of the classic singers were still on the air, but "then it got to be '91 or '92 and ... it just became this awful horrific thing." Howie's songs are often about traditional country topics, such as bad relationships, but he noted that by the time a song came out, the woman it was about had either moved on with her own life and never heard it, or had remained his friend. During his most painful moments, he can't write songs about what he's experiencing, but after time passes, he's able to reflect on the events and put them to music.

On Down the Track quickly gained praise, and climbed to the top 20 of the Gavin Americana chart, earning the Pistols a contract with Yep Roc Records. The Pistols' second album, Step Right Up, was a collection of live recordings, and won the group Best Live Album Award and Howie the Best Live Vocalist Award from 3rd Coast Music magazine.

In 1999, the band joined with singer Tift Merritt to record seven duets, released on EP format as The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt. As they got ready for a tour to promote the album, the Pistols changed their lineup, leaving Howie on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, but replacing previous band members with Scott McCall on lead guitar and backing vocals, Neal Spaulding on bass, and Mark Weaver on drums. As the band noted on its website, this group was "capable of shifting gears from a Buck Owens/Ray Price-styled shuffle to a soulful weeper without missing a beat." Howie told Teverbaugh that his goal was "to have country musicians in this band instead of rock musicians posing as country players. Now I feel that I've gotten that." He told Philip Van Vleck of the North Carolina Durham Herald Sun, "I don't really even have to explain much to them," and noted that the band members had suggested many of the arrangements on the album.

Despite the success of the album, 1999 was a painful year in Howie's personal life. His father died, his short-lived marriage dissolved, and a previous band member and friend, bass player Ellen Gray, died from breast cancer. Howie told Rusty Marks in the Charleston Gazette online that many of these events later came out in his music, in the songs he wrote for the band's 2002 album You Ruined Everything. He commented, "When my father died, you could have walked to my house and sawed off my hand on 10 cups of coffee, and it wouldn't have been as bad as that."

In 2001, the Pistols released a 45-rpm record. The A-side held the Johnny Cash song "Blistered" and the B-side showcased an original Pistols song, "When You Had Time for Me." They promoted the record on college radio programs and sold it at their shows.

Earned Acclaim with You Ruined Everything

In 2002, they released You Ruined Everything, featuring 12 new songs by Howie. The album was launched with a United States tour. In addition to the core Pistols members, it also featured guest musicians Chris Bess on keyboards and Clyde Mattocks on pedal steel. Bess was known for playing with Southern Culture on the Skids, and Mattocks was a veteran of Johnny Paycheck and the Supergrit Cowboy Band. Howie told Brickman that although the songs on the album cover very different themes and concepts, "they were all written around a certain period of time around a certain set of circumstances and they make sense together. I just think the band sounds a lot better than we've ever been."

Van Vleck wrote that You Ruined Everything was "the best record Two Dollar Pistols has ever released," and noted that it recalled "the classic Bakersfield sound that country fans have long associated with the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and, most recently, Dwight Yoakam." He also praised Howie's "distinctive baritone voice" as well as his songwriting ability.

In addition to playing in the band, Howie has tended bar to help make ends meet. "I'm a pretty good listener; I guess I always have been," he told Marks. Of his future, he commented, "The idea of trying to predict the future--even tomorrow--is something I'm not comfortable doing." Undoubtedly, though, the future looks bright, as noted in the Pistols' website, Howie continues to write, perform, and "drive [his] music home with an energetic edge that leaves [his] audiences wanting more."

by Kelly Winters

Two Dollar Pistols's Career

Group formed with John Howie, Jr. as leader, 1995; released debut album, On Down the Track, 1997; signed with Yep Roc Records, released live album Step Right Up, 1998; collaborated with singer Tift Merritt to produce The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt, 1999; released a 45-rpm record, 2001; released album You Ruined Everything, 2002.

Two Dollar Pistols's Awards

3rd Coast Music magazine, Best Live Album and Best Live Vocalist (John Howie) awards, 1998.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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