Austin, besides being the Texas state capital, is home to much of the best in American roots music. Since the 1970s, ballsy blues players, renegade country pickers, and raw-voiced rockers have mixed & matched their musical styles in Austin’s thriving club scene. And that’s where Kent “Omar” Dykes holds court too.
He hails from McComb, Miss., a town with the curious distinction of being home turf for both Bo Diddley and Britney Spears. It’s well established that Omar started playing guitar at seven, took to hanging out in edge-of-town juke joints at 12, joined his first band at 13 – the next youngest player being 50 – and played the sort of music where somebody bustin’ a cap at somebody else was just added percussion.
He was still Kent Dykes in those days, but by the time he hit 20 he had hooked up with a crazy-assed party band, called the Howlers, who specialized in playing frat parties. Looking back, he says, “ We had two saxophone players on baritone and tenor who wore Henry Kissinger masks. They were called the Kissinger brothers. Not on every song, mind you. Sometimes it was Dolly Parton playing saxophone. Or Cher. And we had these cardboard cutouts from record stores for skits.” They even did fake ads for Sunshine Collard Greens and Howlers’ Fried Chicken – “for that old-fashioned taste that tastes just like Grandma.”
It was a crazy time, but a helluva lot of fun too, with the rough & tumble Howlers playing R&B, R&R and even the occasional polka and western swing tune. A decade earlier and 250 miles north of McComb, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn had learned their chops exactly the same way as members of the Memphis party band the Mar-Keys.
But Kent Dykes mostly just wanted to play blues. And by then the other Howlers had taken to calling him “Omar Overtone” because he tended to let his guitar feed back on stage while he dropped to the floor to spin on his back in a spontaneous, Big & Tall Store take on break-dancing. As he says, those performances were “sometimes fueled by, a-hmm, alcohol.”
By 1976, the Howlers decided they were ready to bust a big move and relocate to Austin, where such clubs as the Soap Creek Saloon, the Broken Spoke, the Armadillo World Headquarters and Antone’s had created a haven for renegade music. “We worked out of Austin for about a year,” Omar says, “but a lot of the guys decided they weren’t cut out to play music full-time for the rest of their lives. They headed back to Mississippi and Arkansas, and I decided to keep the name.
Nobody objected.” And as Dykes says, Omar & the Howlers works better than Kent & the Howlers. Of such decisions are careers made.
Fronting a new lineup, Dykes honed a band capable of the sort of raw, rowdy, rambunctious blues that made Howlin’ Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor legends and inspired Don Van Vliet to become Captain Beefheart.
By then the Fabulous Thunderbirds were also getting started in Austin and T-Bird member Jimmie Vaughan’s kid brother, Stevie Ray, had formed Triple Threat with Lou Ann Barton, future Double Trouble-r Chris Layton and Jackie Newhouse (LeRoi Brothers). The T-Birds were the first to record, cutting their debut in 1979, but Omar wasn’t far behind with Big Leg Beat in 1980. His second, I Told You So, in 1984 made them the big men on the block – or at least along Austin’s famed Sixth Street – earning them consecutive Austin band-of-the-year awards in 1985-1986.
The following year Omar signed with Columbia Records and cut Hard Times in the Land of Plenty (1987), which sold in excess 500,000 copies, and Wall of Pride (1988). Since then there have been another dozen albums, all of them featuring Omar’s guitar and baritone voice, which reviewers describe as a cross between Howlin’ Wolf in his prime and the warning growl of a large primate. Hyperbole aside, the big man’s talents have earned an international following, prestigious awards and induction into the Texas musicians’ Hall of Fame.