The best-eating band in America: Iconic Texas chefs power the sweet foodie musicof The Barbwires
Bands get groupies for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it's the potential to have a song written for you. Maybe it's the tight pants. It's definetely something to do with the swagger.
But when your band is The Barbwires, and your leads are two of Texas' most famous chefs, Robert Del Grande (of RDG and The Grove, among others) and Dean Fearing (who rose to fame at The Mansion on Turtle Creek and now owns Fearing's in Dallas), it's the combination of a funky Texas twang and some legendary post-gig meals that makes fans of foodies and famous musicians alike.
In the 1980s, Del Grande and Fearing, along with Stephan Pyles and others, established their own takes on a new southwestern cuisine and began traveling and presenting dinners together around the country, gaining national recognition for a food movement that would later earn each one of them a James Beard Award.
"We called it the room service tour — nobody ate better room service than us," Fearing says. "Thirty people, 11 room service carts, these are the days when you could sign it all off. I'd go back to The Mansion and turn in a $700 bill for room service."
The tours only began to include music after Robert's wife Mimi let it slip to Fearing that all her husband did when he wasn't cooking was "play that damn guitar." Fearing told him to bring it along, and over the chords of Derek and the Dominos' "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad," a band was born.
"We called it the room service tour — nobody ate better room service than us," Fearing tells CultureMap. "Thirty people, 11 room service carts, these are the days when you could sign it all off. I'd go back to The Mansion and turn in a $700 bill for room service. Robert and I would be playing and everyone would be singing.
"Stephan Pyles even went to school for voice lessons. It was amazing. As time went on other chefs would bring their guitars so it became a giant jam session — we'd have guitars, base players, drummers on anything in the room that could make a beat, we were having fun with it."
It wasn't for another decade that the jam sessions would turn into a serious musical concept. By 2000 the main players were Fearing and Del Grande, who decided that they should give the band a name and start writing their own music. With Fearing in Dallas and Del Grande based in Houston, the writing process took place long distance, with Del Grande sending Fearing lyrics and Fearing coming up with a tune, the two playing guitar back and forth into telephones and trying to replicate and riff on what the other came up with.
With inspirations ranging from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds, the duo settled into a rockabilly/surfer country sound that combined several genres while remaining true to a unique Texas musical identity.
"The whole cooking idea was to have something that resembled what Texas was all about, something you’d call the home flavor, that we would be different from New England or California," Del Grande says. "And sound-wise, too, we wanted to be a Texas sound, as opposed to Nashville, because Texas has all the sounds, between country, western, blues, folk, etc. I was always keen on what the sound should be.
"They do kinda fit together and they should make sense together. It would be strange if we were cooking Texas food and we were in a waltz band or heavy metal or something."
While the name The Barbwires evokes a classically tough Texas vibe, the original idea was a little less polished. According to Robert Del Grande, it all started as a (somewhat corny) homage to the classic bands that included the players' names in the title. "I said hey, it’ll be Dean Fearing and the Bob Wires, and I’ll be Bob, and the band will be The Wires and I’ll run the band and you’ll be Dean Fearing. And the next thing I know, Food and Wine magazine is calling me and says they’re doing a little story about our band, and they wanted to know 'Do you spell that B-a-r-b-e-d Wires or B-a-r-b-w-i-r-e-s?'
"I knew if I explained it was actually the Bob Wires it would sound stupid, so I was like, 'Yes, B-a-r-b, Barbwires.' And then it went to print, so that’s that."
The Barbwires took the band up a notch when the Del Grande/Fearing duo gained some experienced backers, including famed saxophonist Johnny Reno.
"All the musicians now are big food and wine guys, and Johnny Reno, the saxophone player, he lives in Fort Worth and started coming to a lot of my cooking classes," Fearing says. "I couldn't believe that Johnny Reno, who I've seen a hundred times, was interested in my cooking. We got to be friends and he said, 'Hey let me bring my sax,' and eventually said, 'Hey, let me bring my band and we'll be your band.' So his band started to be The Barbwires."
The bold-name list of Barbwires doesn't end with Reno. The guest list reads like a who's who of both chefs and Texas musicians, including Norman Van Aken (harmonica), Tim Keating (vocals), Joe Abuso (bass), Mickey Raphael, Steve Winwood, Wynonna, Buffalo Springfield's Richie Furay and Jimmy Messina.
"It's fun because all these people are big foodies," Fearing says. "I can die peacefully now, I played with all my idols."
"We’re the best-eating band in America," Del Grande says. "It’s always about food and wine and what’s the scotch today?"
The band has released a studio album, 2007's Bliss and Blisters, and unites for live gigs a couple times a year, including a performance in Houston on Tuesday night at the Second Annual Best Cellars Celebrity Dinner. But as much as Fearing and Del Grande dig the music, food is never far from the scene.
"We’re the best-eating band in America," Del Grande says. "It’s always about food and wine and what’s the scotch today? If you played and food and wine were really important to you, you could join. Dean was a friend of Mickey Raphael’s brother — Mickey, of course, plays harmonica with Willie Nelson. So Mickey came and played with us, and then we had dinner. We’ve got all the amps and stuff lined up and there a table with white linen and everything in the corner, so we were set up for a little five-course dinner. We pour the wine, fill up the plates, and Mickey is like, 'Wow! You guys do this all the time?'
"We said this is just kinda how we do things. Because that was always part of it. We would never play and not eat. Even now with our squad who are professional musicians, it’s always, 'You wanna play? You wanna eat?' "