Ivan Struck, but Rock and Roll Survived
Chris Manson October 7, 2004 Issue

Aside from a broken window, the effects of Hurricane Ivan on Hammerhead’s and Poppy’s restaurants were nonexistent. The Village at Baytowne Wharf establishments were back serving drinks the following Tuesday and fully operational by Friday. Best of all, the Howlin’ Jacks are performing four nights a week, playing what singer-guitarist Jack Lowe describes as “a mix of Tex-Mex, rockabilly, Cajun, and oldies.”

Lowe may be the only guy in town who could beat me in a game of rock and roll trivia. “He’s very knowledgeable about songs and who wrote them,” bass player Rocko Heermance said. Heermance has played with some big names—the Pointer Sisters, Lou Rawls, Wet Willie, and Ann-Margaret among others—but considers Lowe one of the best. “He is very underrated. Jack’s fun to play with, and his believability gets across to audiences.”

The night I saw the Howlin’ Jacks, Lowe and Heermance were performing as a duo. The full band includes drummer Tommy Beavers (Asleep at the Wheel), Joe Fuller (Black Cat Bone), and guitarist Fritz Froeschner (Two Week Notice, Amy Hart Band). “We’re kind of like the Traveling Wilburys of Fort Walton Beach,” Lowe said.

“Or the Fort Walton Beach Boys!” Heermance laughed.

“We took a blood oath not to play anything past 1979,” Lowe said. And despite the inclusion of Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 tune Cynical Girl and a more recent song by Jim Lauderdale, the duo remains true to their convictions. Their set began with the Everly Brothers classic Bye Bye Love, and followed with Neil Young’s Long May You Run (“a mock tribute to a car and a girl—in that order,” Dave Marsh once wrote). One of the restaurant’s patrons requested Van Morrison, and Lowe and Heermance complied with—no, not the overplayed Brown Eyed Girl—Tupelo Honey and Into the Mystic. After Tupelo Honey, Heernance looked over at Lowe and said, “I haven’t heard you do that in a while. You do a good job on that.”

Heernance and Lowe tore through a couple of rockabilly songs I didn’t recognize and made another successful stab at Everlys harmony with a lighthearted Bird Dog. Heermance got to sing Drift Away before Lowe reclaimed lead vocal duties for Neil Young’s Comes a Time. Although the acoustic duo format usually conjures up images of laid back songsters, these guys did quite a few rockers like Dave Edmunds’ Sweet Little Lisa and a Buddy Holly medley that included Oh Boy, Rave On, Well All Right, Peggy Sue, and That’ll Be the Day. There is a lot of energy in Lowe’s strumming and rock riffs, and Heernance’s bass playing rolls along mightily. The unpredictable twosome closed their first set with an unusual choice—Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone, a country tune made famous by Charley Pride.

“Sometimes people get up and dance,” Heernance said during a break. “Music is such a beautiful medium. When I started, I was eight years old. I’m 52 now. I didn’t get into this for sex or drugs or alcohol, although I was vulnerable because I got it for free. Girls would just come up and give it to you. But it’s the music. The power. With one really cool signature lick, people will dance or cry—you’re dictating emotion. No other job they pay you for has that.”

Heernance linked up with Lowe after the old Howlin’ Jacks bass player left for West Virginia. “When the season came up again, he said to come out and play, the bass job was open. I got the name ‘Rocko’ when I was with the Great Pretenders. My real name is Rick, but there were already plenty of Ricks around. So I named myself after this dog that sniffed people’s crotches and made a disgusted face. He was trained to do that. I’ve been Rocko since 1985.”

Indeed, all of Heernance’s songwriting credits—notably What a Wonderful Waste of Time, recorded by Alabama in 2000 and co-written with the band’s Jeff Cook—say Rocko. Heernance met Cook when he moved back to Fort Walton Beach. “One time someone said, ‘Play an Alabama song!’ and I said, ‘They don’t do any of my songs.’” With the release of Alabama’s CD, When It All Goes South, that statement is no longer true. Another recent highlight was when the Oak Ridge Boys recorded the Heernance-Jimbeau Hinson composition Colors, a song inspired by Heernance’s Vietnam veteran brother.

Heernance also told me he planned to work with the Imperials gospel group in upcoming months and record some solo material at legendary “Cowboy” Jack Clement’s studio in Nashville.

Lowe has been at Hammerhead’s and Poppy’s for two seasons as “the semi-house band.” Heernance said, “they virtually built the band around him. Jack’s been doing solo around town for 10 to 15 years. He sat in with me a lot.”

The full band plays on Fridays. You can see the duo or the Howlin’ Jacks in some configuration or other Tuesday through Thursday night starting around 7 p.m. These guys are worth hearing any way you can get ‘em.

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