The first editor of the old Portland Phoenix had a little joke he used to describe the twangy bands that were seemingly everywhere in late-‘90s, early-2000s Portland.
“They play both kinds of music,” Sam Smith would say, “country AND western.”
A southern boy with a wide and eclectic set of tastes – he loved the Munjoy Hill Society – Smith nonetheless had a special place for the mountain music of his upbringing and it was hard to escape it back then, with “No Depression”-style alternative country all the rage, full of twangy electric guitar, growling vocals, and simple narratives of love and loss that rebelled against the stodginess of the Grand Ol’ Opry.
That genre, though, largely lost cohesion with the rise into mainstream popularity of stringband-acoustic and the infusion of Nashville country with four-on-the-floor beats, fiery rock-and-roll arrangements, and an almost exclusive obsession with drinking and pick-up trucks that subsumed rock and left it in the dust.
Suddenly, bands aping Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash sound downright alternative all on their own, just by actually playing their instruments and singing harmonies.
This new authentic country and its many indie flavors is where you’ll find “Bloom Country, Vol. 1,” a new compilation of New England country from Maine’s Burst & Bloom Records. It’s full of earnestness, acoustic guitars, warm and full arrangements, and very few digital accouterments – and some truly excellent and memorable tracks, at that.
For this listener, the big discovery is Charlie Marie, a straight-ahead country singer out of none other than Providence, Rhode Island. While it’s hard to picture her roaming the streets of Federal Hill with her 10-gallon hat and embroidered shirts, when you hear the first notes of her vocals on “Rhinestones” it’s easy to believe in her dedication to the genre. This gal has pipes for days, in the up-beat Dolly tradition, and it’s hard not to hear “Jolene” in this Texas shuffle:
“If you can work the land,” she belts, “with a Telecaster in your hand, you can be my brown-eyed handsome man.”
There are all sorts of these traditional callbacks in this collection and its success lies in the artists’ ability to keep it from sounding like schtick. There is genre-mining and homage here, but it never comes off like costuming or irony.
And a lot of it just sounds like the indie-folk that’s been popular in New England for decades.
Tiger Saw, featuring Burst & Bloom label founder Dylan Metrano, provides in “The Last Time You See a Friend” the same kind of downtempo, quiet, contemplative fare that got them labeled “sadcore” in the first place, just with a heavy dollop of pedal steel.
And Hamilton Belk’s “Endless December” leads with glimmering piano and loungy, poppy vocals in a playful way that’s not surprising given his extensive list of credits supplying pedal steel for the likes of Spencer Albee, Jeff Beam, Jacob Augustine, Henry Jamison, and Ghost of Paul Revere.
For Belk’s debut as frontman, though, it remains an impressive track, his delivery full of winking self-assurance and completely at ease.
The most Portland tracks come from the red-hot Genevieve Beaudoin and Luke Kalloch. As partners in Dead Gowns, they supply a demo in “Castine” that leaves one thirsty for the full treatment, with Beaudoin vocals that crowd your ears from the jump and intimacy that reminds of California sun, like the light is in your eyes no matter which way you look, and lyrics that seem secondary to the mood they’re conveyed with. And Kalloch’s Loblolly Boy project provides a smoldering “Relief,” which opens sparsely and halting and then blows up into a grinding, crashing full-band treatment, before coming full-circle into a quiet, duet finish that borrows the best of the first two thirds.
Rooted in the Austin tradition where Kalloch made his home for a while, it’s like a Guy Clark/Spoon mash-up.
Ultimately, of course, “country and western” is a big tent, and one can argue whether Americana, roots, stringband, bluegrass, and so many other similar genres live inside it or out. But this compilation seems to posit that country, at its core, contains a world-weariness and practicality, an authenticity and organic creation.
Maybe that connects with folks living rural existences where days are eaten up with stocking wood in the house, unfreezing pipes, and caring for animals in a way that doesn’t pay much attention to what the latest news or trends might be.
Heck, Sam Carp, who bears a bit of resemblance to Iron & Wine, is an actual farrier for his day job.
But it’s also fair to wonder whether we are seeing a reaction, in general, to the digital music revolution that dominates our airwaves and earbuds. Regardless of the mode of existence — urban, rural, desk job, blue-collar — this may be tapping legitimately into the yen for human connection and community that has always been at country’s heart.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
• AcidWash, “Ashes” — A whispering, and more than slightly menacing digital pastiche that brings together a rolling acoustic guitar pick and industrial beats. Built for late-night wallowing and faraway stares.
• Pink Navel and Won Pound, “Pink Pound” — A new EP of crisp rap tracks from Pink Navel, all coming in under two minutes, built on Won Pound digital beds. Navel is, as ever, philosophical with pop culture: “Saying eat my shorts, eat my shorts, eat my shorts forever in tandem is dark, dude.”
• Travis Cyr, “Whoever You Are I Love You” — Inexplicably, Cyr is back with yet another full-length release, just out Feb. 5. Nor are these toss-away tracks. “Love’s Gone Crazy” clocks in over 10 minutes and delivers so many great turns of phrase: “Love is John Prine smoking butts in paradise.”
• J Spin, “Voices” — Watch out for this dude; it’s doubtful anyone is making more radio-friendly tracks right now. This is a straight bop, singable, fun, and downright uplifting.
• Crunchcoat, “Don’t Lose” — Some more great, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll from the Repeating Cloud label. With dueling gal-guy vocals and a searing guitar sound, it’s a tight little punk love song.
— Sam Pfeifle