In the Beginning...the Deli Days Part 1.

...there were two guys that wrote good songs and sang pretty well together. What follows is a less-than-brief beginning to the continually unfolding story of how those two barely-bearded fellows in the photograph below managed to become surrounded by some of the finest musicians in the Sooner state and ended up making music for a living in a touring rock and roll band. It's one of the longer posts I've ever electronically penned, so pour a cup of coffee, open a fresh pack of smokes, and twist up a fatty if you're so inclined.  Welcome to 309 White Street, otherwise known as the goddamn Deli.

Deli Duo Gig taken June 2010. Norman, OK. Photo by Morgan Jones.
I promised you more tales of yesteryear, and that's a promise I intend to keep.  We get a lot of questions from a slew of different people about the old smelly Deli, so I thought I'd take some time and to set the record straight about the place that spawned and nurtured this ragged, rag-tag group of music making maniacs we affectionately refer to as the Damn Quails Philharmonic.  Enjoy, bubba.

There is no place on the planet like The Deli.  I know that's a rather bold and cliche'd statement with which to kick this thing off, but in this case, its also a fucking true statement.  Norman, Oklahoma has been lucky enough to exist around the Deli since the 1960's, back when they still served food and the rest of campus corner wasn't being bought up and decked out like every other trendy near-campus downtown area in a thousand college towns across this great, if a tad misguided, nation.  The Deli is one of the few venues that still exists to present live music EVERY SINGLE NIGHT OF THE YEAR.  That's right folks and folkettes, no matter which holiday happens to be happening, no matter how shitty the weather outside may be, even if the world around it is engulfed in flame and misbegotten merchants of mayhem run amok and openly riot in the streets, you would still be able to catch a show at the old smelly Deli. It is a microcosm of maniacal music making, a haven for bands and songwriters to showcase their own (primarily original) material for whomever happens to be around and whomever they happen bring into the bar on their own merits.  Acts from all over the world come to Norman to play a bar that only holds 90 or so people at a time to play on the stage that Bob Moore built.  That's no colloquialism either.  Bob Moore re-built the Deli stage with his bare hands sometime back in the late 80's, and it has since borne the weight of thousands of bands and songwriters from damn near every genre of music you can possible imagine...except bro-country...there's no place for that shit in the Deli.  No place.  For we Damn Quails, however, the Deli stage holds a very special place in our hearts and is DIRECTLY responsible for our very existence as a musical entity. It's also one of the only reasons we've become popular enough that folks like yourself actually WANT to read this blog.

(Left to Right) Jon Knudson, Bryon White, Gabriel Marshall, and the man himself, Biggie at the Deli, early August 2010.
Norman, OK. Photo by Morgan Jones.
Part of the Deli's modus operandi are recurring weekly shows by local artists from the Norman scene. These weekly gigs are tough as roofing nails to procure, but once you land one, you have a solid golden opportunity to cultivate and grow a fan base from the roots all the way to the leaves and branches, provided you can keep people coming back week after week. The coveted Monday night spot at the Deli was offered to Gabe Marshall around the end of 2009, a spot that had recently been vacated by Stoney LaRue after his own solo career skyrocketed its way to the heavens with his version of Mike Hosty's Oklahoma Breakdown. Hosty has been playing every Sunday night at the Deli in Norman for something like 13 years or more.  I'm not sure of the exact figure, but it's been a fucking long time and Hosty still has an extremely strong following of college kids and regular attendees from all other walks of life that show up consistently, week to week,  WITHOUT FAIL. When TDQ Monday Night Madness became a consistently well-attended weekly show, the Bizarro Deli Weekend was born, and for the next few years, Hosty Sundays/TDQ Mondays were the most consistently happenin' events in central Oklahoma. Bob Moore has asserted (on more than one occasion) that our Monday night shows were the best night of music you could attend in Oklahoma, and for the low low price of five dollars, you got a substantial amount of bang for your buck.  Parlay that with the insanely cheap Big Red Cup of draft beer and five dollar jager-bombs that would knock your teeth out, and you had a cheap and highly entertaining evening that even the brokest of the broke could attend and still have plenty of cash left over to make the rent.

Reservoir Quails performing at Tiny Tom Skinner's Magical Mystery Tent at the Grape Ranch in Okemah OK
July 2010. Photo by Gemma Harris.
I once saw a snippet of an interview with Mike Cooley from the Drive By Truckers in which he declared that the fastest way to break up a good band is to practice.  That's a bold statement, but after six years or so of being a part of this band, it's a statement I agree with wholeheartedly. Now, don't start hissing and spitting at me just yet, ye people in bands that actually, routinely practice together.  Practicing is essential in your early years of musicianship, and I most definitely spent a good chunk of time jamming and rehearsing (quite loudly) in various garages, bedrooms, and unfinished houses in the woods with several different bands before we started this whole Quail fiasco. I also spent a lot of time in my bedroom trying to figure out how to sing, write, and actually become a performer.  However, all of that practice with other people was less about refining and molding a sound and more about discovering the ebb and flow of making music with other people.  It's like an invisible hurdle that you don't even really know you're jumping over until you've already cleared it, but once it's behind you, the change in personal approach to performance is palpable.  The idea of practicing songs the same way over and over and over in some futile effort to achieve perfection starts to seem more like what it really is: boring and monotonous. Trust me, if playing a song seems boring and monotonous to the group of people performing that song, it's going to come across to the audience as...you guessed it...BORING AND MONOTONOUS.   Instead of practicing, we just started playing shows together, which does infinitely more for each individual as a player AND the band as a whole than sitting around playing for each other and whoever's parents happen to be home at whatever place where said practicing happens.  When you have an audience, especially an audience that has paid to attend your performance, there is only one chance to get that show right.  It isn't about performing each song perfectly, it isn't about desperately attempting not to miss any notes or flub any guitar solos, it's about making sure you put on a damn good show for the people that came AND paid to see that show.  It hones your abilities as a performer which makes you a better player/singer, which makes you want to play/sing more often, which makes you sound better, which makes you more confident, which makes you want to write better songs to bring to the table each week so you have something with which to dazzle and wow the regular attendees in hopes that they remain regular attendees.  It's a cycle, and I just explained the hell out of it.

So, it started with Gabe and I.  Two singer/songwriters with acoustic guitars and a reasonably impressive catalog of songs between them, taking turns like we learned in kindergarten.  I would play one of my tunes and Gabriel would back me up on harmonies and lead guitar, and then Gabriel would play one of his songs and I would back him up on harmonies and lead guitar, and so on and so forth until the end of the night when we were both hammered thanks to the strength of the Jagerbombs, the three and a half to four hours worth of stage time, and a stupid little game we came up with one evening...the Fuck game. Ready for the aside???  Of course you are...

So.  The fuck game.

Did he really say fuck game?  Yes.  Yes he fucking did.  The fuck game, for those of you that weren't around for the early years or don't remember enough from those days to recall it, was something we stupidly made up on stage at the Deli one night in an effort to keep the small (but intensely dedicated) group of regulars that attended to buy us and themselves as many shots as humanly possible in a four hour set.  The rules of the game were fairly simple...

1.  If Gabriel or I happened to use the word "fuck" over the microphone, either intentionally or unintentionally, the entire crowd had to take a shot.

2.  If someone in the crowd yelled "fuck" at the stage, Gabriel and I had to take a shot.

A simple game, but wildly effective if you're trying to boost bar sales AND get royally schnockered by the end of the evening.  We had to stop playing the fuck game just a few short months subsequent to it's initial creation because, in short, it got us waaaaay too wasted.  I'm talking an apocalyptic level of wasted. How many months, you ask?  I honestly can't remember.  There's far too much bong resin built up and far too many piles of dead and discarded brain cells mucking up the place from so many gallons of hard liquor and deliciously cheap beer to accurately recall exactly when we killed the fuck game, but doing so saved us at least half of a decade of our already shortened life spans.  Anywho...

Adam "Biggie" Rittenberry doing what he does best at the Deli in Summer 2011.
Norman, OK.  Photo by Kimberly Brian.
My first time actually performing at the Deli was towards the end of 2009 when I began playing the Monday night spot with Gabriel.  Attendance on a Monday night was pretty thin as far as a crowd goes, but we kept showing up every Monday night and played songs on acoustic guitars from 10pm(ish) until last call at quarter til 2.  The musical chemistry between Gabe and I was becoming more apparent with every show we played and we had an energy that nobody listening and experiencing it could deny, but it was on the Deli stage that we smoothed all the rough edges off of our performance and became truly, musically in tune with one another.  Our vocal ranges were naturally harmonically complimentary, meaning that Gabe's usual melodic range was suited perfectly for me to sing harmony lines with and vice versa.  Personally, I've always found vocal harmony to be one of the most aurally appealing parts of music, a fact that you can confirm by listening to any of the songs I've ever recorded and half-ass released, going all the way back to my punk rock days as co-frontman for The Mr. Shannons.  It was there at the Deli, on that stage covered with old, ratty carpet swiss-cheesed with cigarette burns, that Gabe and I began to solidify the foundation of the Damn Quails groove. We mainly played what original tunes we'd written to that point, many of which you're now intimately familiar with from "Down The Hatch", not to mention the beginnings of a few songs that ended up on "Out of the Bird Cage".  We also dug deep into our own individual archives of cover songs which we interpreted in our own weird-ass Oklahoma manner, which went a long way towards keeping the show fresh  week to week.  It was during these shows that we developed a good many of our ideas about the way our show would work, including the song-swap style of taking turns singing lead and singing harmony, the abolition of encores, and damn near never playing off of a pre-determined set list.  Playing songs week to week in the same order and the same basic style is a good way to lose your weekly crowd and, eventually, your weekly gig.  NO ONE wants to pay five bucks to see a show they've already seen once, let alone a dozen times, and the fact that Gabriel and I just played whatever we felt like playing whenever it was our respective turn to play a song kept the show lively and malleable. Even though our crowd was noticeably sparse during those first few months, the ten or twelve people that showed up to Monday Night Madness in its infancy were still showing up by the time we played our last regular Monday night gig in early 2014.  They started bringing friends with them and talking about it around the proverbial water cooler, and slowly but surely, we began to accrue an intensely loyal group of weekly concert goers that remain some of our most die hard fans to this very day.  It's because of those people that the rest of the local scene in Norman started paying attention to what was going on at the Deli on Monday nights again, and consequently what caught the ears of the other local Norman musicians playing regularly throughout the scene.

Now, before I start name dropping all of the badass mofo's that would eventually come to comprise the Damn Quails Philharmonic, I feel I should mention the man that first recognized the Quails' potential for rock and roll excellence before said potential was even close to beingachieved.  If you ever find yourself in Norman and decide to swing by the Deli for an infamous Big Red Cup and a few dozen cigarettes, you'll likely find yourself across the bar from one of the largest, most kindhearted people that will ever serve up your beverage of choice. Big Doug Millikin is a mountain of a man that's been tending bar at the Deli since long before my first performance at 309 White Street.   Doug has been making drinks and slinging red cups since time out of mind, and, during the time of our birth and subsequent formative years, Monday nights were one of his usual shifts.  My taste in cover songs ranged all the way from some wonky Tom Waits and Woody Guthrie tunes all the way up to Gram Parsons, Uncle Tupelo, and one of my personal favorites, the iconic and immortal Buck Owens. During one of our first Bryon/Gabriel duo sets, I picked and grinned my way through "Act Naturally", a cover that hung around in our repertoire for at least the first year or two that we were The Damn Quails.  Four or five shows into the duo days, Doug pulled me aside as I was breaking down my gear post-gig.  He put an arm around my shoulder, gave me a smile every bit as big as the man he is, and told me that what we were doing was had real potential and not to forget who called it the very first time.  I still haven't forgotten, Doug, and one of the main reasons we've gone as far as we have is because of yourself, Tic Tac, Lori, Angela, Bill, Bob, Chris Davis, Laura, Satchel, Nooch, Tobias, Big John, Chris, and everyone else that once did or currently still has anything to do with the Deli.  Doug Millikin called it, and I'll always remember that he was the first person to express the fact that Monday Night Madness was far more special than we realized at the time.  Thanks to the entire Deli crew for always believing in us, even before it made a whole lot of sense to do so.

From the tiny stage at the Deli to toasting the crowd on the big stage at LJT 2012.
Stephenville, TX. Photo by Kimberly Brian.
The doorman during the early days at the Deli was a guy that you've probably seen more times than you currently realize. The cover for the Monday night shows was $5 after 9:30pm, and the man that took the money at the door was none other than the tall, dark, grinnin' Italian himself, Giovanni "Nooch" Carnuccio III.  At the time, Nooch was the drummer for Mama Sweet, a band that was far and away the most popular band in the Norman (and essentially the entire OKC metro area) music scene, as well as playing fill in gigs for damn near every other band around.  During those days, if you were in a central Okie band and you needed a fill in percussion player, your first call was either Nooch or Thomas Young.  I met Nooch and the rest of the Mama Sweet crew a few years before they eventually became my friends. I opened for them at a solo gig I played at the Harn Homestead in Oklahoma City, but I wouldn't remember said encounter until a few years down the road.  Nooch has always been a helluva drummer and also one of those people that just can't sit still without doing something his hands, much like EVERY OTHER DRUMMER EVER. After a few weeks of hearing Gabe and I sing our stuff, Nooch decided that, since he was hanging out and taking money at the door anyway, he might as well strap on a marching snare and play along from his post at the front door. During his tenure as door man, you would walk in the front door of the Deli, wait patiently for Nooch to finish playing the current tune being played onstage, then pay your five bucks before we kicked off the next song.  We used Nooch for several gigs outside of the Monday night shows, including a performance at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (or the Western Heritage Museum if you prefer, though I feel the Cowboy Hall of Fame is a much better name for the place) for an engineering conference dinner/reception and a few random bar gigs in the metro area.  It's fairly likely that Nooch would have become our permanent drummer if not for the fact that he landed a spot with our buddies the Turnpike Troubadours and headed out with them during early 2010.  When he left the Troubadours, Nooch went on to play drums for such badassses as John Fullbright, Whitey Morgan and the 78's, and currently tours with Jason Eady.  Nooch has played several shows with us in the years since he whacked the marching snare at the front door, and he remains our first call when situations occasionally arise that preclude Tom from playing.

Giovanni "Nooch" Carnuccio III showcasing his marching snare talents AND penchant for hilarious t-shirts.
Norman, OK. Photo by Morgan Jones.
After a few months of myself and Gabriel swapping songs on Monday nights, everyone's favorite harmonica playing badass Adam "Biggie" Rittenberry started popping up in the crowd. I had seen Biggie play with a few different groups around town, not to mention hobnobbing around with Bob Moore, and when he approached us with the idea of pulling up a third chair and adding his insane level of talent to our humble weekly show, our response was "Why the hell not?".  Biggie and his furiously fierce harmonica playing not only brought the inherent excitement of an added melody to the mix, it also gave us an underlying rhythmic drive that quickly became an intergral part of the sounds we were slowly but surely turning into bona fide musical entity.  He drank more liquor and draft beer on a daily basis than anyone I've ever known...by a damn sight.  He loved two things: rolling hard and playing the ever-lovin' hell out of his instrument, and he quickly became one of my closest and most steadfast of friends.  That friendship was born and solidified on the Deli stage.  Little did we know, we were starting down a path that would eventually take us from one end of the country to the other as close compatriots, brothers in arms, and partners in crime. We bought prescription pills in Casino parking lots off of some sad-luck dames, attempted to bribe front desk clerks at shady hotels to let us in the lobby at 4am to buy a bag of Funyuns,  and had a few guns pulled on us for one reason or another.  To this day, a show without Biggie on the harp at my left side feels a tad off kilter, but the music that happens when we're on stage together is still positively fucking magical.

Bryon White, Adam "Biggie" Rittenberry, and Rita Ballou bringing us on at LJT 2012.
Stephenville, TX. Photo by Kimberly Brian.
Around that same time, our former multi-instrumentalist Jon Knudson started bringing out whatever particular instrument he happened to be learning that week and sitting in on the night.  He started out on fiddle ,and would eventually add keys, mandolin, and dobro to his arsenal.  Attendance was slowly but steadily increasing, and we started kicking around the idea of making a real, honest to Jesus album of our original works.  However, we were as broke as the last cracker in the box, and the only way we could figure to raise enough money to record a REAL record was to make a cheap, self-produced live record and sling it at our weekly shows.  I had an old Mac-book my mom bought me for my birthday paired with a miniature pro-tools rig my dad bought me for Christmas and I started packing it all up in a shoulder bag and toting it around to every show we played. By this point, we were getting decently salty with our live performances (or so we thought...in truth, we were barely even brined)  and we figured a live recording would be the truest interpretation of the band we'd assembled to that point.  Also, it was cheap as hell since my parents had already bought me all the equipment needed to make the most basic of board recording and cheap as hell was exactly what we were going for.  My multi-talented sister Kierston White created Quail caricatures of myself and Gabe and she hand painted the cover art for free.  All that was left was managing to record a night in which four instruments and two voices were all reasonably balanced from the sound board AND we weren't too intoxicated to notice our intoxication in our performance.  No small feat.  Most of those recordings ended up with either the vocals drowning out the guitars, the guitars drowning out the fiddle, the fiddle drowning out the harp, or some alien-sounding buzz drowning out everything else.  I had no control over the mix after it was recorded as the only audio feed was a stereo signal that came directly out of the sound board, so it was a trial and error and error and error type of process.  For those of you unfamiliar with live sound terminology and recording mumbo jumbo, all that stuff I just said basically meant it was a damn miracle that we came up with any useful recordings whatsoever.  But wouldn't you know it, with the help of the rock and roll gods and a dose of good old fashioned Okie luck, we were able to pull off a little magic in spite of all of those nasty little hurdles.

On the magical night at the Deli when the stars aligned and the mix happened to be just perfect for my recording purposes, Biggie's harmonica work in particular was absolutely and undeniably inspired.  I was unaware of  exactly HOW inspired until after the show, when he informed me that he had inadvertently consumed at least a baker's dozen worth of sweet tarts that were double dosed with some high-potency LSD earlier that afternoon. Someone living at whatever house he was crashing at neglected to inform him of the dosing of said sweet tarts until it was far too late to get off the rollercoaster.  Regardless of the intense amount of hallucinogenic drugs that were raging through his system like magical mental blues juice, his playing was impeccable and highly entertaining to behold.  How he made it through the set without freaking out is anyone's guess, but to play the show AND slaughter it with rock and roll excellence was a feat requiring a herculean force of will and a solidarity of mind that I'm eternally envious of.  It takes a true warrior of unbending intent to even grasp the concept of the Plains of Infinity, let alone to quest upon them in a battle of power. That's one tough nut to crack, regardless of how in tune you are to the other side of your own consciousness, but the effects of the LSD didn't hinder his harmonica abilities in the slightest.  In fact, it seemed entrench him firmly within the groove of the show and imbued him with super-human harmonica abilitiesabilities a display of magic that truly earned him the second title of "Goddamn Magic Man" in certain circles of particular people.  This recording sits and hovers around the genesis of this entire world, a virtually undiscovered gem containing some of the most inspired and raw cuts of our songs that exist. It's impossible to find nowadays, and if you do happen to find it under some ridiculous name with an even more ridiculous excuse for an album cover, do us a favor and don't.  You know why.  I can't say it, but you know.

Cover art to our first live record.  Artwork by Kierston White.

Around the time the Troubadours were really starting to hit hard, Nooch was replaced by our current drummer (and resident BMF) Thomas Young.  Before he started playing with us full time, Tom was the go to drummer for any and every band in the Norman scene that needed one and played with groups like Resident Funk, Pidgin, Mama Sweet (after Nooch left) and many, many others.  Tom was snapped up by Chuck Allen Floyd, a former lawyer and Nashville songwriter that had just moved to town and had a string of hits with some of his tunes on the Texas Music Charts.  His touring band was impeccable and contained three guys that would eventually become part of the Quail lineup in one way or another: Thomas Young, Justin Morris on bass, and Jon Knudson on keyboards, lap steel, and fiddle.  Tom was playing for Chuck Allen Floyd when he started bringing his snare drum and brushes to the Deli to sit in with Gabe, Biggie, and myself, and to this day I've never met another drummer that can fill up such an insane amount of sonic space with nothing more than a snare drum and a couple of ragged brushes. We played acoustic guitars for at least the first year and a half of the weekly Deli show, and when Luke Mullenix started bringing his stand up bass to the party, we were sitting on a full band acoustic setup that was nothing short of magical.

Thomas Young behind the kit at the Deli, summer of 2011.  Norman, OK.  Photo by Kimberly Brian.

I've decided to stop here and give your weary eyes and my weary fingers a much deserved rest.  I'll continue this story and post it as soon as I get it done.  There's still a whole lot of people to meet, including Steve Baker, Blake Lennon, and more folks you've seen playing with us on ranom youtube videos.  I'll also get into some more of the special guests that used to grace the Deli stage with us back in proverbial day, guys like Parker Milsap and Mike Rose, John Calvin Abney, Kyle Reid, Derek Paul, and the list goes on and on and on and on.  Thanks for reading my words and I hope I continue to do justice to the story.  As always, take care and I'll catch you on down the road.

Bryon White/TDQ