Country music has fractured over the years, so much so that it now falls into several categories.
There’s the old standards, what kids today probably call Classic County, sung with passion by guys named Cash, Jones, Jennings and Shaver.
There’s the folkier side, which I like to lovingly refer to as Protest Country, which features songs like “For What It’s Worth” or “Ohio.”
There’s Alternative Country, which is dirtier and edgier than Classic Country, but it mines similar territory.
And then there’s New Country, which is to say, mostly a big old steaming pile of crap.
American Anodyne are a country band, there’s no doubt. On their debut album, So, You Want To Be A Bullfighter, the Atlanta,
GA-based band offer a primer on what real country music sounds like.
Lead-off song “Wilco Cyndi” is a rollicking barnburner that will quickly get you tapping your boot heel and feeling good. The boys follow that up with a dark slice of classic country, “The Anniversary,” that delves deep into lost love and cheating hearts.
Then it’s right back to the fast stuff with “Wheels,” a gleeful blast of independence that begs for you to sing along with the windows down, driving fast.
All I really want is wheels
Someone on the slide and someone on the steel
Someone to hold the bottom down
And a long white line leading out of town
It’s not that I don’t want to hang around
And it ain’t that I don’t like this town
It’s just that when the sun breaks over those hills
All I really want is wheels
American Anodyne refuse to be boxed in, though. Like a deck of cards in the hands of a professional trickster, the band closes the album with a four-song set that just makes you smile. There’s the should-be concert anthem, “Get in the Car Laura Jane,” with its wonderful lyrics:
You blew out your tire just over the state line
No help for hours and you started to cry
Then a dented old pickup pulled off to the side
You probably knew better, but you still got inside
I told you my name and you faked half a smile
You didn’t say more than ten words for two hundred miles
I could tell you didn’t think too much of me,
But this is my truck girl, no one rides for free
“Call My Brother” is a glorious old-school country sing-along anthem that would have ruled the radio back in the heyday of The Oak Ridge Boys or Alabama.
I might get drunk tonight, get in a fight
Til I hear the cops in route
Get ‘em up off their lazy asses
It’ll do ‘em some good to get out
At the end of the day in a town this size
There ain’t too much to shout about
I might just get drunk tonight
And call my brother to bail me out
The disc closes with two stark reminders of the dangerous days in which we live, and the important role that music plays in reminding us how high the stakes remain. “Bastard Sons of the New Depression” is a kick-in-the-teeth ballad that bemoans the plight of the working man.
Mother look at me now, I’m out of work and I don’t know how to get
Underpaid for all my labor
Pop if you could see me now
Caught in a world lost in regression
Another bastard son of the new depression
“El Dorado, Dark Blue” is something altogether different.
Wake up in a cold grey cell, you don’t remember your name
Wake up in your woman’s arms & you feel about the same
Everyday is the same routine, the same wretched waste of time
& if you don’t get out, you’re going to leave this world behind
Your grand plans fell apart at 17, when Jenni broke the news to you
Time to trade in that two-seater on a family sedan, El Dorado, dark blue
Instead of the wind in your hair & the open road keeping you young and alive
You got a ring, a mortgage, a stroller and a dog, and the same old 9 to 5
“El Dorado” has echoes of Bruce Springsteen, especially “The River,” but there’s something darker there too, maybe a sliver of Chris Knight’s working class blues or a portrait of life squandered, courtesy of Steve Earle.
It’s a haunting song, no doubt, told with haunting simplicity, complete with an ironic twist of hope. It’s only after the narrator confesses that his Jenni is gone, three years come May, that he reasons it’s time to start living again. It’s not clear if Jenni died or left him for another, less pessimistic man, but there is just enough kick in the pants left to get him up and off his duff and back into the front seat of that old El Dorado, dark blue.
Tough stuff from a band that hits home hard. But true country fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Suffice to say, American Anodyne is Essential Listening.