It didn't take long for guitarist Lewis Winn to realize that Somebody wanted him to swing.
First, he ran across an old guitar-playing buddy, George Langston. The two of them had been invited by bassist Susan Hyde Holmes to join her all-star jam at Santa Fe's GiG. Playing acoustic rhythm that night behind Langston’s Telecaster lead, Winn decided, “I want to be in a band with that guy.”
That sounded good to Langston.
The two of them had a Jerry Reed twangy twin guitar thing in mind, and who better for bass than Ms. Holmes? A founding member of that sassy cowgirl group The Buckarettes, she’s comfortable with just about anything from C&W to punk.
“Hell, yes, I am so down for that!” was her response, Winn recalls, and the Alpha Cats were born.
Everybody started bringing material to rehearsals. “We all kind of gravitated to older swing tunes,” he says. “George and Susan had never done any jazz, so I sort of fell into the role of leader.”
Then the phone rang.
“Joey Bradley called me out of the blue,” says Winn. The singer had an Eastman archtop guitar, a jazz player’s dream—a high-quality, handmade instrument with a fat jazz tone and great feel, economically priced because it’s made in China.
Even at a nice price, it was too much for Winn, who’s been “fighting the inevitable descent into abject poverty.”
Then Bradley landed what Winn calls the “killer blow”—“I had a vision of you playing one of these things.”
Winn maintains a healthy skepticism, but Bradley, he says, has “got the mojo, so I had to take it seriously.”
A few days later, Winn was playing a Saturday night gig at Bumble Bee’s when Bradley brought the guitar in. “He opened it up, and the angels were singing,” says Winn. “I played it and it was just perfect.” But still too expensive.
The next night, guitarist Bill West showed up at the Sunday night jam at Seasons, where Winn was playing bass. Out of the blue he says, “Yeah, I got this Eastman I’m trying to sell.”
“It freaked me out so much I didn’t even say anything to him,” says Winn.
Several days later, he called West and the two arranged a deal that allowed Winn to get a beautiful sunburst Eastman archtop and delay abject poverty a little longer.
It just so happened that night was the Alpha Cats’ very first gig—and the archtop’s professional debut. Which is how the Alpha Cats got way into the archtop swing thing.
“It all seemed so guided,” says Winn.
Langston, you see, has an archtop, too, and when the two of them are playing those guitars together, “It’s just so satisfying. Sweet and old-school,” says Winn.
Langston and Winn still take out their Fenders when they’re feeling a bit rowdier. Winn relishes Langston’s work on the Fender: “He’s just a Tele god. He’s got all that pseudo-steely country twangy stuff that I love.”
On bass, Holmes brings a sweeping knowledge of musical styles and a rollicking good time. She’s played with Jon Gagan, Joey Bradley, John Egenes, among others, and for years she worked as a bassist and backing vocalist for Bill and Bonnie Hearne. Cal Haines, recently returned to New Mexico after a stay in California, holds down the drum stool. His credits stretch from Diahann Carroll, Rich Little and Bob Hope to Charlie Rich, Al Green and Clark Terry.
With their breadth of experience, the group is as likely to pull out a jazz standard as an original, and they’ve got Western swing, blues, bossas and ballads in their bag, too.
The bottom line for Winn is having a good time. He can do without the solemn reverence that some bring to a jazz performance. “We take a more playful swipe at the music,” he says.