The nuclear weapons system they were named after is long gone, but the Titan Valley Warheads live on as Tucson's premier Western swing/bluegrass band. Although they've been together in various configurations for more than 20 years, they're just getting around to releasing their first CD. While the musicianship has always been superb, it's been a very laid-back gig. The Warheads are more interested in picking and grinning than glory.
"We wanted to have fun and play some decent bluegrass," according to mandolin player Gary Kuitert, a founding member. "That was basically it. We never got in it to make a living because most of us had done that already. We were looking for something that was not full-time, on the road six nights a week, but something that we could really have fun with. For the most part, it's turned out that way. We have a great time doing this."
Their repertoire ranges from the Carter Family to Marty Robbins, Bob Wills to Bill Monroe. Their longevity and modest career goals sometimes cause them to be taken for granted. Nonetheless, the Warheads were named best bluegrass band at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1988. They are regulars at the Tucson Folk Festival, usually just before that year's headliners. Opening for bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley's recent Tucson shows, they gave a crisp, fiery set that left the headliner's band playing catch-up.
For the past six years, the Warheads have made Lil Abner's Steakhouse in Marana their Sunday-night home away from home. On February 2, the band will celebrate the release of its self-titled CD with a concert at the Berger Center for the Performing Arts.
"We did a tape back in the '80s but we haven't really put out a product since then," Kuitert shrugged.
Over the years, membership in the Titan Valley Warheads has been a who's who of some of Tucson's best musicians.
"If I start counting everyone, including the fill-ins who have done one-nighters with us, it's around 35 people," according to Kuitert. "If somebody was getting real busy, we'd get a fill-in, they'd learn the material and eventually they'd join the band."
Along with Kuitert, fiddler Don Johnson and bass player Ed Davenport have been around long enough to be considered founders. The most recent full-time Warhead, guitarist Earl Edmondson, has been playing with them for more than 10 years.
The Warheads started performing as a band in 1981. They had known each other in the Arizona Mountaineers, a local country band led by the late Don Matlock. Kuitert, fresh from the Midwest bluegrass scene, joined the Mountaineers, where he met Johnson and banjo player Martin Sinclair. Ed Davenport occasionally sat in on bass. Davenport was a founding member of Summerdog, one of Tucson's best remembered bluegrass bands from the '70s.
"The Mountaineers played a lot of '50s country tunes with banjo," Kuitert said. "Eventually, we all kind of left, except Don. He stayed until there weren't any more Mountaineers left."
The Warheads' heady halcyon days in the early '80s were spent playing at the Bar M Cattle Company and Al Smith's Pub, both on Oracle Road.
"We took over at Al Smiths's after the other band quit and I joined the Warheads," Johnson remembers. "We played there for years. A lot of our old fans remember that."
Kuitert adds, "It had an old-fashioned four-sided jail cell that people used to sit in. We would rock that place!"
The original lineup briefly featured Ricky Lee Phelps, who left to join his brother Doug in the Kentucky Headhunters.
"We had just gotten a decent repertoire," Kuitert still laments of Phelps' sudden departure. Davenport quickly filled in. He's been a regular, except for a stint when he lived in Mexico. During that five-year period, the band had three different bass players.
Likewise, the banjo role has rotated. Founder Sinclair had been replaced by Ross Nickerson by the time they won at Telluride. Currently, the Warheads have no regular banjo player, although Andy McCune frequently fills in.
"Andy's been working with us on and off since around 1990," Kuitert said.
Over the years, guitar chores were handled sequentially by Joe Martin, John Mattingley and Peter McLaughlin. Current guitarist Earl Edmondson, nephew of folk legend Travis Edmondson, won the Telluride Festival's Fingerpicking Championship in 1991. He had been a member of Woodrose, a trio with Mattingley and Brian Kendig, and then in the eponymous Meighan, Edmondson and McLaughlin, which also won best bluegrass band at Telluride in 1991.
"For a couple of years before I joined the Warheads, I was playing with Bob Meighan and Peter. When Peter started touring more with Laurie Lewis, I started playing more with the Warheads and I've pretty much been with them ever since," Edmondson explained.
Edmondson isn't the only instrumental champion in the band. Johnson was the 1956 National Fiddle Champion.
"My father played and I inherited his fiddle when he passed away," Johnson said. "My mother encouraged me and we started playing square dances at trailer parks in the late '40s. I've been doing it ever since."
Johnson also plays with Dean Armstrong and the Arizona Dancehands on Friday and Saturday nights at Lil Abner's.
"Any band that's been together this long is almost like a marriage," Edmondson notes. "But we don't seem to have too much trouble figuring out how we're going to go about things. When you play music together this long, things just fall into place."