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'Hot Dogs and Beer' in tow, former airman brings country twang to Germany

The German country music band, Nighthawk, performs last summer at a country music festival in Mragowo, Poland. The band's lead singer, James Bailey, center right, is the only American in the group NightHawk. With Bailey the band has recorded one album and shot three videos, including a countrified version of Korn's rap-metal classic, "Freak on a Leash."

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Even as he traveled the world working in one of the Air Force’s most dangerous careers, James Bailey pursued his passion for music in the little down time that came with life as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

While stationed in Germany from 2002 to 2005, Bailey produced albums for several American musicians and played in at least three rock bands.

In those days, Bailey never expected to one day trade in his bomb suit for cowboy boots and find success as the vocalist of a German country music band.

Now a civilian, Bailey joined NightHawk two years ago after answering the band’s online ad for a lead singer. Most of the band’s five other members — middle-age German professionals — had been playing country music together for more than a decade.

With original songs such as “Hot Dogs and Beer” and “Stomp a Hole in it,” NightHawk stands out as an authentic American-style country band in the land of lederhosen, where the closest thing to country is usually a cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” at the downtown bar.

NightHawk won the “Band of the Year” prize at the 2014 Country Music Messe in Cologne, a huge festival that draws hundreds of musicians from throughout Europe and thousands of international country music fans. It was NightHawk’s biggest award since its formation in 1997.

Since then, NightHawk has gone into overdrive. Last summer, the band released its third album — and first with Bailey — “Everything Is Alright.”

Bailey produced the album under his label, Bomb Shack Records. He recorded some of the music in a tiny spare bedroom in his house, padding the walls for better sound. The drums were recorded in the explosive ordnance disposal shop’s supply room on Ramstein Air Base, where no padding was necessary because the room is filled with blankets and sleeping bags. For every CD sold, $1 is donated to the EOD Warrior Foundation.

Of the 12 songs on the album, 10 are original, most written by Bailey.

One song is a cover recognizable only by its familiar lyrics. It’s a twangy, guitar-picking version of Korn’s rap-metal classic “Freak on a Leash.”

The Korn cover was inspiration for the band’s second video, shot inside a barn in Rammelsbach, a small village near Kusel, where Bailey and NightHawk bass guitarist Achim Rausch live. The video stars members of two local German line dance clubs who pose as zombies and chase the band into the barn. When the frightened band members grab their instruments and start to play, the Zombies break into a trance-like line dance.

“He’s our fifth singer in the band,” Rausch said of Bailey. “We had two American singers before. He’s the best.”

Bailey, 35, formed his first band while attending high school in Paso Robles, California. He could sing and play the guitar and drums. But the rock band fell apart after the drummer earned a college football scholarship.

In 1997, a year after graduating, Bailey hitched his star to the Air Force.

That same year, half a world away, keyboardist Dirk Steinhauer, a worker at his family’s flour mill, and some friends struck up the idea of starting a country band. They found Rausch and guitarist Dieter Sladko, who along with Steinhauer, are the original members still with the group today. The name NightHawk was pulled from the Tom Waits’ album, “Nighthawks at the Diner.”

They loved the sound and challenge of country music, so they stuck with it, even as members came and went, including an American drummer and two former U.S. soldiers working in Kaiserslautern, Don Jensen and Joe Hawkins, who were lead singers at different times.

Bailey’s career as an ordnance disposal technician took him on assignments around the world, from protecting former President George W. Bush on trips to Botswana, South Africa and Turkey, to NATO missions in various countries. From 2002 to 2005, he was on active duty in Germany. 

Forced into medical retirement by a diagnosis of narcolepsy, Bailey found his way back to Germany in 2011, when a civilian contractor job at Ramstein became available. With more time on his hands now that he wasn’t active duty, he was back making music. By then, NightHawk was looking for a new lead singer.

“We needed an American front man,” Sladko said.

When Bailey saw NightHawk’s ad in a local classified website, his eyes popped.

“I saw them in the Irish House back in 2003,” he said of NightHawk. “They had this huge light show, huge sound; they’re running all over the place, bringing energy to the crowd. So when I saw that ad, I’m just seeing all my prayers being answered.”

A skeptical Rausch invited him to his house in Rammelsbach one afternoon to audition. Earlier that day, Rausch had auditioned several Americans who had oversold their singing talents.

Rausch asked Bailey to sing the Eagles’ “Hotel California” — the bassist’s ultimate test.

“He is the first singer who can do that song,” Rausch said. “That is my dream, since I play music, to play Hotel California live.”

The band, which mixes country with classic hard rock at its live shows, performs the song at every concert.

Rounding out the NightHawk lineup is drummer David Schneider, an information technology specialist for the German government, and guitarist and mandolinist Arndt Müller, a pharmaceutical representative.

Bailey said the best part about being in the band has been “the traveling and experiencing different cultures.” NightHawk has performed in Lithuania, Poland, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, France, Luxembourg and Germany.

“We enjoy the small intimate gigs and love playing for U.S. troops,” he said, “but we sure do have a blast at the big festivals.”

Americans are among their fans, Bailey said.

Though he will take a break from NightHawk this summer when he goes to the States on a fellowship, the former airman will maintain ties to the band.

The group will continue writing and recording songs together, he said. And he will return in September to shoot the band’s fourth video, for “Tin Man,” a song written by Bailey’s buddy, Steve Horton.

 “It has been a fun two years,” Bailey said, “but we’re not finished yet.”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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