He hooked up with wife Barbara Malteze in LA when he was on the singer-songwriter circuit and she was belting out the blues. They joined forces as The Cosmic Dust Devils and headed to Higgins’ home state of Texas where they started building up a pretty loyal regional following.
They recently released their second record, “Gathering Dust” on Heritage Records, dropping the Gram Parsons-ish “Cosmic” from their name and recording in Nashville with a host of veteran session players.
“Gathering Dust” has the seventies all over it. For one thing, there’s an A side and a B side, just like an old timey vinyl record. The A side features Higgins right out front on every track, while the B side is more focused on Malteze.
It starts off with “Southern Tears” a guitar-driven rocker that brings to mind The Outlaws. It’s also a Civil War love song with a theme of frustration and powerlessness against the dual forces of nature and politics, sound familiar?
That kind of populist attitude runs throughout the record right alongside the blazing country rock guitars, dobros, banjos and some very nice B-3 organ played by band member Tony Harrell and guests Barry Beckett and Gordon Mote.
“In Jail,” my pick for the best track with its great harmonica riffs by Jelly Roll Johnson, is about an outlaw love affair that, of course, ends badly. It sounds a little like Robert Earl Keen with a mean streak. (Listen to it here.)
They follow that one with “Railroaded,” a foot-tapping train song with a chorus custom made to lodge itself in your head and stay there a while.
That’s the quality that makes the Dust Devils sound like they’re destined for heavy radio rotation and almost certain major label success. Higgins can write a serious hook and back it up with clever lyrical riffs or even a narrative story that holds your interest; then deliver it with a familiar sound that’s polished without going overboard on glossy production values.
That goes for side B as well. When Barbara Malteze steps out in front, the first thing you notice is her voice. She’s been compared to Janis Joplin but credits Atlanta singer Joyce Kennedy, from a band called Mother’s Finest, as her main inspiration.
Check out the first song that features her lead vocal, “Friends.” It has a real down homey feel that seems almost quaint compared to the unauthentic, manufactured quaintness of modern country-pop.
Her voice is full of twangy emotion that straddles the common thread between gospel, blues, country and soul. There’s a very seventies folksy-country-pop feel to her songs that offset the deep-fried hard rock ambience on much of side A.
But at the same time, the lady can wail, as she demonstrates on “Looking For Pearl” a hard rocking blues tribute to Janis.
Malteze pretty much dominates side B until they finally get together for a duet on the next to last track, “Make It.” The song brings up the question of why they don’t trade off vocals more frequently. Although to be fair, she does some exceptional backing vocals on several of Higgins’ songs.
The record closes with "Walk On," a little bit of spoken-word circular philosophy by Higgins that sounds like something Tom Waits might have done if he’d grown up in West Texas and spent his formative years hanging out in honky-tonks.
"Walk On" has gotten some notice and some satellite radio airplay, but for my money, these guys are at their best when they’re reminding us just how much the South rocked the seventies.