John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys

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Upper row ( r.) Kevin Lillis, John Lincoln Wright, Dave Kinsman, Bill Henderson. Lower row: John McDonald, John Macy, George Heath

Crazy Years
by Bill Henderson

In his liner notes, Travis McDonald remembers, from his childhood, hearing constantly about John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys. This is no accident. Being in that band was an intense and lasting experience for those of us who got in at the very start and stayed through its heyday of the mid 1970s.

John was a great presence in the band. He combined manliness and sensitivity in a way that made him equally popular with men and women. He didn’t talk much, but he had a sly comic wit and a way of getting along with everyone.

He was already getting started as a songwriter. “Sweet Montana” was one of the most popular numbers we did, and John Lincoln Wright carefully placed it late in our second set (at Kings a night’s work was 3 long sets) where it never failed to bring down the house. It also gave Lincoln a chance to relax at the bar with a tall Bally–the way we did it was a good 8 minutes long. You can hear the “JLW&SMB” version, included in the player (below).

Those were crazy years. We were known as a “drinking” band, and that was true. This made us popular with club owners, and so we worked a lot—and in some pretty exotic venues.

The Chicken Box, in Nantucket, was a regular stop and a real circus. Getting there was half the fun. Peggy reminded me of a story John told her about riding with me and Ray Jacques, our bass player, to the Nantucket ferry. I took a wrong turn on the way to Falmouth, and by the time I caught on, we were doomed to miss the boat and I knew it. So I did the logical thing: I started punching out my windshield—while driving.

As it turned out, we were able to take the little commuter plane–one hop across the Bay–giving us time to buy some Jack Daniel’s and drink for a while. So, happy ending, as it turned out–though Ray unnerved the other passengers by cracking plane crash jokes all the way. I suppose today we’d be arrested. We could never afford the flight, either, which was about as cheap as a bus ticket.

John and I were the only guys in the band who worked out. On the road, we used to jog together and whenever there was a basketball court nearby we were on it. There was one in Groton Connecticut, across from our motel, that was always empty when we went down there to play the Naval Sub Base. We’d roll out early and get in a half-hour of full court one-on-one before the day started. Ah, youth.

My first look at the band was from a front table at King’s in Harvard Square. I was looking up at the high stage, thinking, “what a bunch of gigantic dudes.” Lincoln, as we called him, was short and slight, and only projected “big” from the stage. John, however, was genuinely tall, and built link a linebacker. Ray Jacques was well over 6 feet.

For all of us, that band was huge bonding experience, with both the good and the bad, and certainly most memorable experience of our youth. I joined just a few weeks after it started up, and I liked John right away. The night I auditioned he was instantly welcoming and supportive, calling out the chords, alerting me to key changes and so forth. He’s just one of those rare guys everybody likes, and back then there was something almost angelic about him. He had a quiet, sunny presence. Not that he was always an angel. When you are in a popular band, you have many chances to be bad, and like all of us, he occasionally took his.

Austin was then, as now, a hotbed of the kind of music we were playing. Although we had plenty of work in New England, I think we would have gone in a minute, and only John Lincoln Wright’s desire not to leave the area—he was a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee—kept it from happening.

And so, as it so often happens, Travis was the one who went, a generation later. I know all us have wondered from time to time what our lives would have been like had we ended up in Texas 35 years ago. But it’s water under the bridge now. We are who we are, and John, staying right in Boston, has written some of the finest songs you’ll ever hear anywhere.

Would that have happened if we’d gone to Austin? Probably. But just in case it wouldn’t have, I vote for this life—because I know for a fact it’s the life that produced the CD you’re holding right now.

“Fiddlin’” Bill Henderson was part of John Lincoln Wright & the Sour Mash Boys’ original “wall of sound” line up.