Polka/world music group
Although often misunderstood, Brave Combo has never wavered from their mission to bring polka music to new audiences. Just as likely to arrange a well-known rock song as a polka as they are to perform a traditional or original one, the group is sometimes mistakenly perceived as having their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks when they play. Nothing could be further from the truth. While they incorporate their sense of humor into their music, they are serious about polka and the other ethnic folk styles in their large repertoire. Over time audiences have learned to take the band much more seriously than when they first started in 1979. By 2000 the band had come to be held in such high regard that they won a Grammy Award for the best polka album of the year.
Brave Combo encountered questions about their seriousness from the moment they started performing. Band founder Carl Finch recalled to Zac Crain of the Dallas Observer that “just walking out on the stage with an accordion was enough for a five-minute laugh.” For Finch, though, polka is no laughing matter. In fact, it became his passion in 1974, when he tired of playing rock & roll guitar in the contemporary pop music scene. He explored ethnic music from around the world for an alternative, and ended up hooked on polka. Five years
Members include Lyle Atkinson (left group c. 1985), bass, tuba; Jeffrey Barnes (born July 27, 1951, in Fremont, OH; joined group, 1983), vocals, woodwinds, harmonica, electric horn; Dave “Tito” Cameron (left group c. 1983), drums; Joe Cripps (born January 5, 1965, in Little Rock, AR; member, 1992-c. 1999), percussion; Alan Emert (joined group, c. 1998), drums; Carl Finch (born November 29, 1951, in Texarkana, AR) vocals, accordion, guitar, keyboards, songwriter; Bubba Hernandez (born Cenobio Xavier Hernandez on November 28, 1958, in San Antonio, TX; joined group, 1985), vocals, bass, tuba, songwriter; Phil Hernandez (born February 5, 1971, in Buffalo, NY; group member 1992-98), drums; Mitch Marine (group member 1985-92), drums; Danny O’Brien (born November 12, 1966, in Lakenheath, England; joined group, 1993), trumpet; Tim Walsh (left group c. 1983), saxophone, clarinet, flute.
Formed in Denton, TX, 1979; released first album on own label, 1981; signed with Rounder Records, 1987; Polkas for a Gloomy World nominated for Grammy Award, 1995; held a reunion tour with most past and present band members, 1999.
Awards: Grammy Award for best polka album of the year, 2000.
Addresses: Office —Brave Combo, P. O. Box 233, Denton, TX 76202. Record company —Rounder Records Corp., 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Website — www.brave.com/bo/.
later, while a master’s student in fine arts at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), Finch put together the first incarnation of Brave Combo. The quartet consisted of Finch, bass and tuba player Lyle Atkinson, drummer Dave Cameron, and saxophone, clarinet, and flute man Tim Walsh.
Brave Combo proved an apt name for the quartet, because they didn’t perform in traditional polka venues. Performing at clubs frequented by their college-aged peers, the group soon discovered that the sense of humor they injected into their music got mistaken for sarcasm about it. They found more appreciative audiences, though, playing for punk and new wave audiences, who were looking for something outside the mainstream of pop and rock. The band’s quest for audiences took them to some unusual stages, including a tour of mental institutions. And when they played for crowds who shared their polka passion, such as at a Czech festival in the Texas town of West, they received a warm reception.
Early on, their desire to spread the music they loved took Brave Combo into the recording studio. They started their own record label, Four Dots, and put out their first recording, a double EP entitled Polkamania, in 1981. Their first full-length album, Music for Squares, came out that same year and featured a range of musical styles that were far from fashionable. Along with polka, the album included waltz and chacha music. Their next album, World Dance Music, didn’t come out until three years later. It found them expanding their musical horizons and creativity even more. This album also featured their first recorded foray into setting rock standards to folk arrangements: the Doors’ “People Are Strange” done as a Romanian hora. This practice would become a Brave Combo staple. The liner notes for the album expressed the band’s ambitions: “If we missed your part of the world, please check future releases.”
Their 1986 recording Polkatharsis originated as a cassette tape for distribution at live performances. It soon found wider distribution, though, when the group signed with Rounder Records. Their new label had them add four songs and then released the expanded album, which consisted almost entirely of polkas. By this time, only Finch remained from the original quartet, joined now by Mitch Marine on drums, Jeffrey Barnes on various wind instruments, and Bubba Hernandez on bass. This lineup played together throughout the rest of the 1980s and cemented the group’s reputation, described in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music as a “wholly refreshing sound that matches musical discipline with learned eclecticism and good humour.”
With the wider distribution available to them from a national recording label, Brave Combo’s reputation reached beyond Texas. They took advantage of this opportunity to spread their message far and wide. Finch described the band’s goal to Crain as “trying to change people’s perception, and trying to get people to rearrange their ideas about what’s acceptable and what’s hip and what’s not hip.” Mixing original compositions, traditional pieces, and rearranged rock songs, albums such as 1989’s Humansville and 1992’s A Night on Earth reached out both to polka traditionalists and the growing audience for roots music. Their appeal spread as far as Japan, where their warm reception inspired them to write lyrics in Japanese for the title track of their 1991 album, Eejhanaika.
The early 1990s saw changes and an expansion in the band’s lineup. For the 1992 album It’s Christmas, Man, Phil Hernandez replaced Marine on drums, while percussionist Joe Cripps also joined the band. The group then added trumpeter Danny O’Brien for the recording of 1993’s No, No, No, Cha Cha Cha. While releasing albums at a pace of one per year, Brave Combo remained tireless performers who would play in almost any venue that would have them. While their ethnic roots sound made National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion a logical place for them to play, other gigs such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and halftime at a Dallas Cowboys football game showed how the stages they chose could be as unpredictable as their songs.
The band’s reputation continued to grow, with the 1995 album Polkas fora Gloomy World receiving a nomination for a Grammy Award as the year’s best polka album. The band also explored collaborations with other artists. In 1996 they played on the album Girl, the last one recorded by Tiny Tim, famed singer of early twentieth-century pop songs, before his death. That same year they also teamed up with neofolk singer Lauren Agnelli for Kiss of Fire. Describing the album as having a cabaret sound, Finch told Matt Weitz of the Dallas Observer his trepidation about getting lumped in with the trendy retro sounds of the time: “It’s kinda sad—we’ve predicted the fad; now we’re in the fad— but so much of that is this retro thing. Like you’re pretending you’re in a different era…. A lot of our struggles have been with that.”
Brave Combo continued to make polka music for their time. Their 1999 album, Polkasonic, represented yet again their efforts, as Finch told Jim Bessman of Billboard, “to bring polka up to the twenty-first century.” To that end, they produced an almost wholly polka album, featuring covers of traditional songs along with some compositions of their own and, of course, a track fusing the disparate worlds of polka and psychedelic rock: “Purple Haze—The Jimi Hendrix Polka.” But this album marked a departure for the band in other ways. They released it on Cleveland International, a label accustomed to issuing such music and thus delivering the band to a wider traditional polka audience than they had had before. Greeted with acclaim in this community, Polkasonic went on to win the Grammy Award for best polka album of the year.
The year 1999 also featured another celebration for Brave Combo, as the band marked its twentieth anniversary. In honor of the occasion, nearly all the former band members reunited for a series of concerts. Everyone from the original quartet appeared, along with some who had departed not long before, such as Cripps and Marine, who had recently been replaced by Alan Emert on drums. While taking this opportunity to look back with old band mates, the band kept forging ahead. Their 2000 release, The Process, departed from the pure polka of their previous album as they continued to explore a wide range of world music. While polka predominated, elements of ska, zydeco, and rock also cropped up, leading reviewer Michael Paoletta of Billboard to say that the album ended up “deftly almost subversively educating listeners by wrapping rich cultural sounds and concepts with candy-sweet hooks and hard-driving instrumentation.”
For Finch, The Process represented the kind of work that the band had been doing for more than 20 years, but with a shift in emphasis. He told Crain that in the past, “I think we put a lot more emphasis on playing styles instead of songs. We wanted this record to be geared toward the songs, so people would be thinking song first.” Part of getting this focus on the songs themselves instead of musical genres included getting people to recognize the band for itself instead of pigeon-holing it as a polka group. Specifically, Finch also told Crain that he would like the band to be thought of “as songwriters as much as … people who take old music and rearrange it.” No matter how any one album gets perceived, though, Brave Combo has gotten their message across about the value of their music. They have convinced audiences that they aren’t making fun of the music they play; they’re having fun while they play.
Music for Squares, Four Dots, 1981.
World Dance Music, Four Dots, 1984.
No Sad Faces, Four Dots, 1985.
People Are Strange (EP), Rogue, 1986.
Polkatharsis, Rounder, 1986.
Humansville, Rounder, 1989.
Eejhanaika, P-Vine, 1991.
It’s Christmas, Man!, Rounder, 1991.
A Night on Earth, Rounder, 1992.
No, No, No, Cha Cha Cha, Rounder, 1993.
Polkas fora Gloomy World, Rounder, 1995.
(With Tiny Tim) Girl, Rounder, 1996.
(With Lauren Agnelli) Kiss of Fire, Watermelon, 1996.
Mood Swing Music, Rounder, 1996.
Group Dance Epidemic, Rounder, 1997.
Polka Party with Brave Combo: Live and Wild, Easydisc, 1998.
Polkasonic, Cleveland International, 1999.
The Process, Rounder, 2000.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Robbins, Ira, editor, The Trouser Press Record Guide, Collier, 1991.
Romanowski, Patricia and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Billboard, April 13, 1996, p. 43; September 25, 1999, p. 13; May 20, 2000, p. 26.
Dallas Observer, November 14, 1996; July 8, 1999; March 16, 2000.
Tulsa World, August 8, 1997, p. 21.
“Brave Combo,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 21, 2000).
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