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Damon Fowler's Southern Hospitality

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Nationally-acclaimed blues/roots singer-songwriter-guitarist Damon Fowler practices a song in the backyard of his home in Bradenton Beach while joined by his dog Conway. Herald-Tribune staff photo by Dan Wagner.

Damon Fowler’s big, dimple grin cuts through the darkness as he stands outside the historic cottage he calls home in Bradenton Beach.

It’s the same endearing smile he’s flashed on stages across the country and, in recent years, abroad, for nearly two decades.

But these days, his smile shines just a bit brighter.

In the past year Fowler has married, become a father and witnessed his music career reach new heights thanks to the formation of the super group Southern Hospitality, one of the headlining acts at the annual Tropical Heatwave festival in Ybor City taking place May 10.

Southern Hospitality features three front men who are well known in the blues world. There are guitarists Fowler and JP Soars, plus piano man Victor Wainwright. Their debut album, “Easy Livin,’” was recorded with swamp blues star Tab Benoit at his home studio in rural Louisiana. The CD came out earlier this month on the famed blues record label Blind Pig, which has also issued Fowler’s past two solo albums, “Sugar Shack” and “Devil Got His Way.”

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From left: Damon Fowler, JP Soars and Victor Wainwright of Southern Hospitality. Publicity photo.

“There’s a magic, fun part about releasing a record,” says 33-year-old Florida native Fowler. “It’s exciting, it really is.”

It’s a Thursday around 8 p.m. We are seated at a high-top table in the back of the packed Drift-In, happily listening to the likes of country greats Merle Haggard, Tom T. Hall and vintage Hank Williams Jr. on the jukebox before a guy with a guitar struggles with classic rock covers on a small stage out of sight. The Drift-In is less than a quarter mile from Fowler’s house and probably the greatest dive bar you’re likely to find within walking distance of any beach in Florida. Fowler never performs here -- that’s a gig for much less established acts -- but he frequents the funky, smoke-filled lounge often.

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Damon Fowler spends time with his wife, Lacy, and son, Maxwell, in the backyard of his home on Bradenton Beach. Herald-Tribune staff photo by Dan Wagner.

“I like the ambiance,” Fowler says with a smirk, “and the drink prices.”

“Easy Livin’” opens with the sonic equivalent of a most welcoming, front porch salutation and would sound perfect on the jukebox here at The Drift-In. The song is called “Southern

Livin’” and it finds Fowler, Soars and Wainwright taking a verse each to describe, in sparse yet detailed language, his particular love of Dixie. The memorable lines are delivered over a sweet, coastal-country blues groove. The three front men, with help from Benoit, came up with the song in the studio over Thanksgiving week.

“We were writing what we love about our homes,” Fowler says, matter-of-fact, in between sips of Crown and Ginger. “I live here at the beach, so that’s what I wrote about.”

“Easy Livin’” closes with another collaboration, “Sky is What I Breathe.” It’s a gorgeous folk-rock number that came to fruition after plenty of Jameson around 5 a.m., after Southern Hospitality’s rhythm section — Fowler’s forever bassist Chuck Riley and drummer Chris Peet, from Soars’ band — had already fallen asleep.

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“Man, I had this chord progression and just started playing rhythm guitar and JP started on slide (guitar) and everyone perked up,” Fowler recalls. “Tab wrote a couple lines, I wrote my verse, Victor and JP wrote some lyrics; that was really a community effort.”

In between, “Easy Livin’” includes a winning, eclectic mix of songs that Fowler, Soars and Wainwright wrote individually, plus a couple of obscure covers. On the second track, another standout, Soars sings lead on his original “Long Way Home.” A rocker with a killer riff, the lyrics are about life on the road and loneliness. Soars had written the song for his own band but decided in Louisiana it would work for Southern Hospitality. On the recording, Fowler plays lead guitar.

“He complements what I do really well,” Soars says by phone from his home in Boca Raton. “In the studio we would help each other out and present ideas; everyone is better as a whole, I think.”

Wainwright contributes the originals “Certified Lover” (a smoldering blues) and “Shoestring Budget” (a comical roadhouse ditty) but really opens up emotionally on “Don’t Boogie Woogie,” the Jerry Lee Lewis hit about the perils of hard living.

“I relate to it exactly,” Wainwright says when interviewed by phone from his home in Memphis, Tenn. “I smoke, I eat bad food; it’s a challenge for me and a lot of artists out there. It’s a humorous song but with just a touch of seriousness.”

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Damon Fowler fishes near his home on Bradenton Beach. Herald-Tribune staff photo by Dan Wagner.

As good as Southern Hospitality is on its debut record, and they are very good, the super group is even better live. Shortly after recording “Easy Livin,’” the band performed at the inaugural Bradenton Blues Festival on Dec. 1. The Manatee County and beyond crowd of several thousand, much larger than anticipated, was elated by hometown hero Fowler’s new band. Southern Hospitality has enjoyed similar responses at festivals across the nation and will be bringing its rich Southern soul music across the country and to Europe this year.

“By the time we played Bradenton, I knew we had a promising future ahead of us,” Fowler says, with a grin.

Damon Fowler Group performs 8 p.m. March 28 at Ocean Blues, 1936 Hillview St., Sarasota; $5; 366-3010; oceanblues.net.

Southern Hospitality performs May 10 at Tropical Heatwave in Ybor City; wmnf.org.

Last modified: March 20, 2013
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