Deadman Walking

Deadman Flats, from left, Matt Stambaugh (mandolin), Pat Watt (banjo), Brody Buster (harmonica), Hank Osterhout (bass) and Alex Law (guitar), have begun a new tour that, for the first time, features longtime bluesman Buster.

Deadman Flats, from left, Matt Stambaugh (mandolin), Pat Watt (banjo), Brody Buster (harmonica), Hank Osterhout (bass) and Alex Law (guitar), have begun a new tour that, for the first time, features longtime bluesman Buster.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hank Osterhout first knew Brody Buster as his boss at Papa Keno’s Pizzeria.

It was seven years ago. Osterhout was new to Lawrence and was hoping to use the move from Hutchinson as a way to springboard his bluegrass band’s prominence in a city known for its music scene.

A few weeks after Osterhout was hired at Papa Keno’s, a friend mentioned he was going to see a performance by the Brody Buster Band. The friend described Buster’s backstory: A child prodigy harmonica player. Discovered by B.B. King in Memphis. Played on “The Tonight Show” as a child. Performed with Quincy Jones. Went on to develop a following as a blues-rock musician.

Osterhout doubted. Surely this couldn’t be the same Brody Buster who had hired him to make pizzas.

“It was amazing,” Osterhout says. “He was his own local legend.”

The pair remained friends through the years, and Buster even sat in on a gig with Osterhout’s band, Deadman Flats, at the Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival in 2010. But it wasn’t until last fall, when Deadman Flats took a hiatus following the death of banjo player Pat Watt’s mother, that Osterhout approached Buster about joining the band permanently. He now bills the harmonica player as the “infamous Brody Buster” in press materials for the band.

“That’s Hank for you,” Buster says. “If that’s who he wants me to be, it gives them a little marketing edge. I have been around forever, but I’m new to the bluegrass world.”

Deadman Flats, with its new lineup, debuted Feb. 21 in Fayette, Ark., with its first gig since August. Shows are scheduled to resume in April throughout Kansas and Kansas City, with a show set for May 4 at the Bottleneck in Lawrence.

The band, which also includes Alex Law on guitar and Matt Stambaugh on mandolin, has been busy writing new punk-infused bluegrass — more than 30 songs, doubling the group’s repertoire — and rearranging old tunes to incorporate Buster’s harmonica, which adds both rhythmic drive and new solo opportunities.

Now, band members can take turns with solos, with Buster’s harmonica breaking up the stringed features. The harp notes cut through the twangy strings, giving another layer of sound to the band.

“I’m playing rhythmic guitar on some songs,” Buster says. “I don’t want the harmonica to be overbearing all the time. If it’s on every song, it can be too overwhelming.”

Buster, who now lives in Overland Park, keeps a busy music schedule, continuing to play with the blues-rock Brody Buster Band and rock band 1950 D.A., which also features former Paw frontman Mark Hennessy.

Though Buster is a bluegrass newcomer, Osterhout says he’s gelled well with the group.

“He does a really good job of sort of fitting into the Deadman Flats mold,” Osterhout says. “The styles aren’t as different as you’d think. All of the underlying rhythms and chord progressions are pretty much the same. Blues is a derivative of jazz and bluegrass.”

Osterhout says that because of the 27-year-old Buster’s 18 years in professional music: “He’s hard to impress, I’ll put it that way. He’s like a modern sage.”

Buster is glad to break into the bluegrass scene, which has seen a surge in popularity over the past decade. He notes there are plenty of similar acts around, including Split Lip Rayfield and Yonder Mountain String Band.

“It keeps it interesting, that’s for sure,” he says of the varied musical styles of his bands. “On any given week, on my night, I get to play new tunes constantly. I’ve been doing this forever. There are periods of my life when I think, ‘I can’t play “Superstition” one more (expletive) time.’”

As for his child prodigy past, Buster says many people no longer identify him as the 10-year-old who played on Jay Leno’s set. The crowds are simply too young, he says.

“In a lot of ways, maybe my career would have been better if I wouldn’t have gotten started so early,” he says. “It’s hard for some people to shake the novelty aspect of it.”

But, he adds, “I’ll take any kind of recognition I can get.”

Buster’s inclusion in Deadman Flats comes as the band is attempting a new strategy. After forming in Hutchinson, the band routinely crashed house parties in Lawrence, boldly turning off the recorded music on the stereo and starting impromptu sets.

“People would inevitably love it,” Osterhout says. “We sort of gained this cult following by doing these kinds of things.”

Their popularity and reputation grew, and the group played 200 shows annually in recent years, crossing the country in a van and even heading to Europe for shows in Belgium and Holland.

But Osterhout says the band is abandoning that shotgun approach and trying a more targeted set of dates, playing no more than 40 shows a year and usually no farther than 500 miles from Lawrence. Building a strong, more local and regional following should allow Deadman Flats to build momentum and regain a more prominent national presence, he says.

“We’re all musicians,” he says. “But we’re taking on the aspect of running it like a business. That’s our new approach, to be more business-minded and even out the risks.”

And Buster’s reputation in the region and beyond is certainly part of the formula.

“There’s a cross-promotional aspect to it,” Osterhout says. “We each have our pretty sizable fan bases in the region. As soon as we announced Brody was coming on board, you could tell by Twitter and Facebook we had sparked this new interest in our respective acts. It’s like we formed a whole new band.”