Bruce Sheehan grew up in Youngstown, OH aka "Murder city". By the mid-80's he had moved to Austin, TX and started up Jungle Records. "Youngstown and the northeast in general, it was the late 70's and it was very depressed, everything was closing. I was looking for fame and fortune! A friend of mine and I went on a little tour of Texas and I decided to come back to Austin. It was the music, I was into music up there just as a listener. I played organ and trumpet and stuff like that in high school but I was never in a band per se other than screwing around as kids."
He soon found himself in the middle of a burgeoning Roots Rock revival that brought Rock 'n' Roll out of the arena and back down to Earth. "I had a record store here in Austin called Treasured Tracs and Mike Buck was working for me. The Leroi Brothers would practice in the back. Mike had a key 'cause he worked there. I had a .45 automatic in one of the file cabinets and I'd usually lock that but one time I didn't and Mike knew it was there. He pulls it out and him and Joe Doerr were dicking around with it. They took out the clip but they didn't clear the chamber and one of them pulled the trigger. This thing went through some shelves in the back, through some books, through the front wall, ricocheted off the wall in the front and embedded itself into a record rack. Nobody got killed or anything but Jeezus Christ! Ya know? I still give Joe a hard time about that."
"The Leroi Brothers had a record in the can that Jim Yanaway had done. They convinced me to put it out, Jim didn't even know we did it. That was kinda weird, caused kind of an odd relationship between Jim and I for a while. I was assured by them that this was all fine. It's funny now, it wasn't so funny at the time. Jim and I are friends now so we're cool. Jim had money problems so basically I financed the rest of the project. We issued the record on Amazing for the first pressing and I ended up buying the rights from him and putting it out on Jungle for the second pressing."
"When we first did that Gary Rice was the one who convinced me I should put out the Leroi Brothers record, he was like their manager at the time. He's the one that got the Big Guitars project going. We had a guy who put somebody in, and I ended up giving him about a $3,000 advance. It was pretty successful, one of the songs got nominated for a Grammy and it had gotten good press. But then for Volume II they wanted an outrageous amount of money for it and I passed on it. Somehow they came to an agreement with Jim and I never knew the details of that."
Jungle Records kept a small roster centered around getting the word out on Sheehan's favorite local acts any way possible. "The Commando's was just a 45, I put out a cassette with The Highway Men, I did Evan Johns' Christmas record. The Killer Bees was probably the most successful financially, we actually got into Sound Warehouse and even Wal-Mart. It was nice because those people would buy routinely. Kept us going."
TRASH, TWANG & THUNDER became the label's defining album. Billed as Big Guitars From Texas, it paired the legendary rhythm section of Mike Buck, described in the TRASH, TWANG & THUNDER liner notes as "one of the steadiest drummers in Texas", and iconic bassist Keith Ferguson with four blazing guitarists headquartered in Austin. Don Leady was a founding member of the Leroi Brothers along with Steve Doerr and Mike Buck and had first played with Ferguson on CHECK THIS ACTION. Big Guitars reunited him with Buck and Ferguson around the same time he was putting together the Tail Gators with Ferguson and drummer Gary 'Mudcat' Smith. Denny Freeman was a staple at Antone's, having backed many of the old Blues guys there, and of Austin Blues in general. Evan Johns was an over-the-top wild man who had also served a stint with the Leroi Brothers. Frankie Camaro (real name Paul Jova) was described in the liner notes as a "surf musician from Indiana" which turned out to be pretty accurate. Each guitarist contributed at least two songs as well as parts and arrangements for the others' songs. The album roared out of speakers from the first song and demonstrated that not only was the title accurate, it might very well be an understatement. Anybody who has heard TT&T is forever haunted by the sound of Mike Buck taking a chainsaw solo on the song CHAINSAW, without a doubt one of the album's highlights. "I don't remember who came up with the idea for that," Sheehan recalls. "But Mike Buck came up with Jungle Records. I went, 'Come on, we gotta come up with a name. What do we do?' and he sort of went 'jungle' and I thought, 'Hey, that sounds good!'"
And Buck's talents extended beyond the chainsaw as well. "When I had the record store Mike used to do a lot of my ads for me. He created a lot of artwork for me and stuff like that. Little things, little goofy ads and stuff. I had a guy name Dale Wilkins who did a lot of the artwork for Jungle in general, for the albums and stuff, he came up with the logo. But Mike used to do a lot of my ads, like in the Austin Chronicle, for the record store."
Keeping track of the various pressings was a challenge for some record buyers. For example, the UK release on Demon records had a slightly different cover, blue background with a different photo from the same shoot. "Other than the logos the Amazing and Jungle releases were the same. What was different was some of the labels on the vinyl itself. I changed that each time I did a pressing."
"In those days we used to go to New Music Seminar and stuff like that. Demon was licensing things from Austin and the United States in general. We used to go to those conventions in New York and you never knew who you'd meet. That's how the Big Guitars later ended up on Ryko as a CD release. We combined both the Big Guitars on disc; I put out the first one and Jim Yanaway put out the second one and for the CD release we combined them."
Catalog numbers also confused a few record buyers. The first Jungle release "was the Leroi Brothers CHECK THIS ACTION, no matter what the numbers say. I didn't have a '1001' or anything. Everybody thinks there's something else. I don't know why we did that. Make it look official? You never start your checkbook at '1', right? The next one I guess was Big Guitars, 1007. And the third was Evan Johns & the H-Bombs... I think. See, the Wild Seeds and Evan almost came out at the same time, they both came out in '86. Yeah, The Wild Seeds is 1009 and Evan is 1008 so Evan's came out first. And then Mamou was 1010."
TRASH, TWANG & THUNDER received national attention and placed the Big Guitars alongside some very high-profile guitarists of the day. "GUITAR ARMY from Big Guitars was nominated for a Grammy and we went out to the Awards show in L.A. Trying to think if we stayed at the Tropicana. I know Angela Strehli went with Denny. Nobody else took dates or anything I don't think, but everybody went. I tagged along because I didn't get an official ticket. I had to get one from the band. I think I took one of Don's tickets. Each guy got two tickets but only the performers actually got the tickets. Kenny Rogers was the MC. I'm no fan of his but it was OK. We were one of those that were in the beginning where it wasn't broadcast until later. You know where they break away to those little ones when they have time on the television, "This is who won this one." So we weren't live broadcast. Stevie was nominated for the same category, Best Rock Instrumental. Remember the cartoon that was in the (Austin-American) Statesman? We got that kind of press. Because Stevie and we were in the same category it made for a good story. I think Jeff Beck won."
Although the idea of four guitar-slingers backed by Buck & Ferguson made for a rockin' LP it didn't translate to stage. A handful of gigs and one taped performance are all that happened with the lineup after the LP. "There was only a couple gigs, we did one at Antone's. I think there was only three gigs. Dixie's Bar & Bus Stop, something Butch Hancock was involved in. It was over on the East side in a little studio and they used to do tapings there. It was mainly for public access type things. They did tons of bands and Big Guitars did do a show there. So there is some footage."
Hot on the heels of TT&T's success a follow-up album was released the following year on Amazing Records. Mike Buck was once again on drums and topped his chainsaw solo with a vocal debut. Sarah Brown, also a staple at Antone's, was on bass. Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel), Rick 'Casper' Rawls (another Leroi Brother, now a 20+ year alumni), Jesse 'Hercules' Taylor (Joe Ely) and Gerry 'Phareaux' Felton (Omar & the Howlers) were the next four guitarists. The follow-up LP was billed as More Big Guitars THAT'S COOL, THAT'S TRASH. But despite an excellent lineup lightning failed to strike twice. As Sheehan recalls, "No, I wasn't involved in the second Big Guitars album. There was a little animosity because we were pissed about the way it came down. Little money grabbing kinda thing. And it was not nearly as successful (as the first Big Guitars album). I don't know how many he sold. The CD did OK but not great".
The label ran from '83 to '90 or so before succumbing to the usual problems that plagued a label that size. "It wasn't one of those things that ended, it just faded off. I ran out of money. Couldn't collect money from any distributors, very typical of the day. One of those people go out of business... I remember one time a house distributor went out of business and Rounder bought up the inventory. We got 10 cents on the dollar. You do that a couple times it drains you. So it just sort of faded away. Rounder still licenses the first Lerois album from me. Over the years most of that stuff has been licensed overseas, though most of that's all expired now, so there was little things going on throughout the years."
With the advent of the Internet, networking sites and 21st Century DIY indie musicians many of the people involved in Jungle Records have reconnected and there is some talk of reviving the label " Facebook has been unbelievable, I've reconnected with so many people over the last couple of years. And it feels good because I feel like I'm back with some of the music people. You see them out and stuff but this gives you a little more insight into what they're doing. You get to see where they're playing, what's going on, at your fingertips as opposed to just hearing it. Mike and Eve Monsees got married. They played at the Ponderosa stomp in New Orleans and got married down there. Not sure if it was planned or not."
Mike Buck in a tuxedo?!? "Mike was dressed up but he wasn't quite in a tux."
"I still go out and listen a lot, I do the record show. That's about all. I'd love to do something again. I gotta find a little niche, I don't what that is yet, though. Maybe something live music-wise. I don't own the rights to Big Guitars. The guy who does I don't think is ever gonna do anything with it. The Killer Bees might still do well. When you think about it today the Leroi Brothers still play at least semi-regularly and they still sound great. Granted there's a guitar slot that keeps opening up. Basically Mike and Steve have been there the whole time. And Joe really, now, he still sings with them all the time."
" We just had a Jungle reunion party at my house (Oct 2nd, 2010) where Highway Men played, what's left of the Wild Seeds (Michael Hall), and the Leroi Brothers. We had a blast. And I got up and sang, had my singing debut!."
While the 21st Century DIY indie has been a boon for many up-and-coming musicians it may well prove to also be a boon for small labels such as Jungle Records, home to some of the rawest and greasiest Rock 'n' Roll that emerged as an antidote to the slick, over-produced music of the era.