Chefs Dean Fearing and Robert Del Grande still singing after 20 years
Two of Southwestern cuisine's creators have a longtime alliance outside of the kitchen — as the musical act The Barbwires.
Food and music are two of life's most satisfying pleasures.
Closely related in their sensibilities, both art forms are concerned with measures, notes, harmony, balance, rhythm, and timing. So it's not surprising that many musicians love to cook and many chefs started out as musicians. And it makes perfect sense that two of America's most acclaimed chefs forged a musical alliance that's endured more than 20 years.
Dean Fearing and Robert Del Grande met in the early 1980s, when as young renegades they turned the culinary world upside down. Along with chef Stephan Pyles, the three Texans — each with his own unique culinary style — created what is now known throughout the world as Southwestern cuisine. Double lightning struck when Fearing and Del Grande discovered they both played Martin guitars.
They immediately started writing songs together and played their first show as the Barbwires at a fundraiser for the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 1985. Never letting their skyrocketing culinary careers get in the way, they've been playing together ever since at parties and food festivals throughout the country; the band has even appeared on television.
Late last year while both chefs were in the middle of opening their own multimillion-dollar restaurants — Fearing's in Dallas and The Grove in Houston — the two masterminds made their recording debut with the release of Bliss and Blisters. Inspired by the music of their youth, they co-wrote, sang, and played guitar on all 11 songs on the CD.
With Fearing on his 1951 vintage Fender Nocaster and Del Grande on his Gretsch, it's clear that rock-and-roll is the driving force for these two creative talents. As they do in the kitchen, Fearing and Del Grande draw from different elements to make their own distinctive musical statements. Bliss and Blisters is a sophisticated collection of deftly crafted songs, steeped in Country rock and straight-ahead rock-and-roll, with echoes of Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beatles, and the Grateful Dead.
The CD is infused with tales of wild women, luckless love affairs, and romantic rejection. Del Grande laments in the title track, "Bliss and blisters/love's a rodeo/It's a twister but you cannot let go," delivered in a style reminiscent of Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Fearing brings the Eagles to the party on the radio-ready "Dixie Highway (Pour Me One More Goodbye)." For the surfy "Mandate for Love," Del Grande pulls out the whammy bar to punctuate clever lyrics: "Her looks define the opposite of Mom," while Fearing seamlessly channels Chuck Berry in "My Life in Love All Alone." Shakespeare sneaks into a border town cantina in "Cupid Is Pouring Margaritas," — "Bless the Cupid in a cocktail dress, with a bow but arrowless" — while the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street is recalled in "I Heard Those Stories."
Over the years, the Barbwires has included a number of different chefs as backup musicians as well as big-name rock stars — Steve Winwood, Jim Messina, Wynonna Judd, and Rodney Crowell among them — who have performed as guest artists with the band. But Fearing and Del Grande have always been the heart and soul of the outfit, working together to create the distinctive Barbwires sound.
Finding ideas for songs all around them, they've been known to scribble them onto bar napkins. The pair wrote "Broken Spoke" after they were panhandled by a drifter in the parking lot at one of their Austin gigs. It's no accident that this song's three-part harmonies recall Buffalo Springfield because Richie Furay, founding member of Buffalo Springfield and Poco, is prominently featured on the vocals. Another musical celebrity bonus is Mickey Raphael, a longtime Willie Nelson band member, who plays harmonica on the title track.
Putting the duo through their paces is producer Johnny Reno, who worked for two years on the project and added his trademark searing sax to some of the songs. Recording and mixing were done in studios in Dallas and Fort Worth; some parts were recorded in unlikely locations, such as Fearing's former home base, The Mansion on Turtle Creek, where Furay sang harmonies directly into a laptop computer in his hotel room.
Fearing and Del Grande are having a ball being rock-and-rollers. Even though they won't be giving up their day jobs in some of the country's most famous restaurant kitchens, this CD makes clear that their gifts go well beyond cooking. Crank up Bliss and Blisters and try out Robert Del Grande's famous chili with Dean Fearing's fearsomely good jalape"o cornbread. It's the perfect way to rock in the new year.