Recreational country?

With a new album and a coming tour, Seattle's Souvenirs make music their job.

IF LUCKY LAWRENCE only knew of the brilliant concept slowly being unveiled during those long, far-from-lonesome nights in his living room when he and four musician friends would gather to play what Lawrence has tabbed “recreational country.” All five were from various Seattle bands—and pop bands at that. Yet they would throw back cold long-neck brews while drinkin’ and pickin’ through the legendary catalogs of George Jones, Faron Young, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and Buck Owens.

The Souvenirs CD Release

Tractor Tavern, Saturday, September 11

Two years later, Lawrence and his pals call themselves the Souvenirs, and they’ve moved from the living room to a stage near you. With a little assistance from a blues musician who shares the band’s practice space, Lawrence even knows what to call this music. “When I mentioned I didn’t know how to explain what we were playing,” Lawrence says, “he said, ‘Just call it honky-tonk, man.'”

With a new record on the shelves and a van full of gas, the Souvenirs are poised to wear their anomalous crown as Seattle’s best country band as far as it will take them. The birth of their growing local following can be traced to a two-week stretch early in the summer of 1998. Fresh off a slew of regular Sunday night appearances at Greenlake’s Little Red Hen, where they fired off blistering sets to handfuls of late-in-the-weekend faithful, Lawrence and Co. confidently snagged a pair of opening slots for national acts passing through town.

One after another, the Souvenirs set the table for the Derailers and Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys, peeling back the eyelids of the public, which quickly spread the gospel. Suddenly audiences at the Little Red Hen went from handfuls to hundreds, a phenomenal shift that influenced ace session player Don Powlak, the band’s part-time pedal steel player, to sign on as a regular member.

Around the same time, Skip Williamson, head of the Capitol Hill-headquartered Will Records label, rang up Lawrence on business. “He called about something not related to the band, something about my day job,” says Lawrence. “I was to send something to him, and he said, ‘Why don’t you throw in one of your demo tapes?’ He was the first industry person to hear the demo. And the next morning, about 8:30, he calls me. ‘Are you signed? I’d love to do a record.’ At that point we started evolving into a record deal . . . and this record.” King of Heartache, released September 7, is a confident collection of honky-tonk brimming with pop influences, a combination unseen in these parts. Through the dozen originals and a cool Faron Young cover, Lawrence’s smooth vocals, comparable to Roy Orbison’s, flow in and out of Mo’s smoking Telecaster chops and Pawlak’s hide-and-seek steel guitar.

Live, the Souvenirs are more likely to rattle saloon doors and jumpstart the dancing shoes of the average hipster. Lawrence has been known to shred the set list by the second song and lead the band into covers from the pickin’ and drinkin’ days: Jim Ed Brown’s “Drinking Champagne”; Leroy Van Dyke’s “Walk On By”; Ray Price’s “Lonely Street”; and just about anything from the Buck Owens catalog.

The CD release party at Ballard’s Tractor Tavern follows an industry performance at the recent Gavin radio conference in Boulder, Colorado. It also serves as a warm-up to a van trip south for a spate of California shows, including stops at legendary haunts like Linda’s Doll Hut and the Whiskey A Go-Go. Yes, the members of the Souvenirs have quit their day jobs. As Lawrence sees it, a whole country awaits.

“We have a Nashville agent trying to hook up with a major [touring act],” Lawrence says. “We’ll focus on markets where we’re getting success on the radio, then we’ll chase those markets. We want to do a 300-night year like the Derailers. That’s where it happens. That’s where you take it to the next level.”