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Tyrannosaurus Chicken puts hybrid spin on music

By JACK W. HILL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published January 17, 2013 at 2:25 a.m.

— A few years ago, there was talk about how the chicken was the closest living relative of the dinosaur. That gave a couple of west Arkansas musicians the idea for their band’s name - Tyrannosaurus Chicken - also known as Smilin’ Bob Lewis and Rachel Ammons.

“Before this band got started, my dad had encouraged me to sit in with Smilin’ Bob’s bluegrass band,” says Ammons, a Barling native. “Bob had always had a separate, kind of one-man band thing also, ever since he was really young, and the bluegrass band started to kind of fall by the wayside. He invited me to join his blues act and I started playing in his one-man band.

“As it became apparent that it was a really new thing, more of taking the old Delta blues thing and putting a new spin on it, we tried to come up with the right name for it, and it came to me when there was a PBS show about scientists manipulating DNA genes of reptiles and creating a chicken with reptile feet and a tail, and I said ‘That’s the kind of look that describes what our music sounds like.’”

The duo, which won the 2011 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase, is based in the Fort Smith area. The band consists of Lewis, a native of Paris, who plays slide guitar, dobro, dulcimer, keyboards, mandolin, banjo, bass and harmonica; and Ammons, whose similarly lengthy list of instruments includes fiddle, cello, viola, Jew’s harp, ukulele, slide guitar, drums and clawhammer banjo. Both sing, together and solo.

Ammons graduated from Hendrix College with a degree in psychology and was about to go on to graduate school but decided instead to pursue her musical dreams. Lewis, the son of a coal miner, grew up going to house parties where he heard songs thatshaped his musical focus.

“He’s been playing music, probably before he could talk,” Ammons says. “And he got his name, Smilin’ Bob, because even when he was mad, he was always smiling.”

Lewis and Ammons perform a mix of originals and Delta blues, folk and rock tunes by a long list of legendary figures, including Robert Johnson, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bessie Smith, R.L. Burnside and Blind Willie Johnson.

Now in its fourth year, Tyrannosaurus Chicken has released two CDs: Hillbilly Gothic and Attack of the Chicken. The duo are now at work on their third release, which Ammons promises will be all originals by her and Lewis.

“The songs will be totally new, tunes nobody has ever heard before,” she says. In their shows, the duo perform about a 50-50 mix of originals and cover songs, but Ammons says the cover songs they do “can’t even really be recognized because we’ve changed them so much.”

Ammons notes that some who have heard Tyrannosaurus Chicken have dubbed the band’s music “psychedelta.”

“We play all around Arkansas a lot,” Ammons says, “and we do really well in Kansas. We’ve played in Louisiana a little bit, gone once to Colorado and will be going to Memphis more. And we’ve really gotten a following playing in Helena at the King Biscuit Blues Festival.”

Tyrannosaurus Chicken’s music has been used in some movies made by Little Rock filmmakers, and Ammons says The Baldknobbers, now being made, will likely use their music.

“It’s a pretty serious historical story about vigilantes,” she says. “We’ll do some soundtrack music for that, which will be more in the style of period music from that era.”

The pair are hopeful of winning a competition that could have them performing at this year’s Grammy Awards, if enough of their fans votefor them in competition that ends today.

Fans can vote as often as 10 times today by going to Facebook.com/TheGrammys (see “Grammy Live: Gig of a Lifetime” section and search for Tyrannosaurus Chicken in the South region).

Tyrannosaurus Chicken

10 p.m. Saturday, White

Water Tavern, West Sev

enth and Thayer streets,

Little Rock

Admission: $5

(501) 375-8400

Weekend, Pages 34 on 01/17/2013

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