As commercial country veers ever-headlong into a concrete wall, it's no surprise that fans have turned to Americana music for sustenance. What's a better balm for the Strat guitar shredding so commonplace in today's country than the soothing strum and unamplified vocals of Americana?
Americana music hearkens back to a simpler, more depressive time, when nothing was good and when there was always a well-scuffed fiddle or a dented dulcimer propped up bestride the front porch, the better to capture life's stark bleakness.
With that in mind, in this episode I will review a few of the best (or in their words, worst) current Americana releases.
#3 ~ Worn-Out Farmers ~ Plow
Decatur, Arkansas phenoms Worn-Out Farmers burst onto the Americana scene this year with their debut release, "Plow". Sick and tired of cotton-pickin', three local boys, DuWayne Tubb (no relation to Ernest) and brothers Cosgrove and Mosgrove Fritts, gathered nightly at the local tavern to conjure a way out of their tiny township and toward the blinding neon of big city Fayetteville, though they knew the bright lights would never ease their dead-eyed melancholy. Nevertheless, after six Bud Lights Moss found that he could strum three chords on the proprietor's guitar, and DuWayne and Cos were able to approximate two-part harmony.
"How dang hard can this songwriting be?" DuWayne pondered. "Shoot, that dad-gum Tracy Lawrence made it big. I remember my grandpa playin' his tapes when I was a little tot, when he'd take me in his pickup to the feed store."
With that touchstone in mind, the three pals set off to make their mark. "Write what you know, boys!" Hank, the tavern's owner admonished them as he slid beer cans down the bar in their direction.
And so they did.
Their first release, "Plow", gained some traction on local radio. A relatable dirge, Plow resonated with local boys (and girls!) who appreciated the mournful lament for its authenticity.
Nashville label Walnut Paneling caught wind of the local boys' success and quickly signed them, with the proviso that the group needed to add a brush-snare drummer to round out its sound. Designated leader DuWayne wasn't keen on incorporating "modern" touches, protesting that his "artistic vision" was being compromised, but the inclusion of Marty "Mutt" McNair proved to be the missing piece of the fame puzzle. From that day on, the hits dribbled.
"Ham Sandwiches Again?" struck a chord with fans who were sick to death of wives slapping together ham and mayo sandwiches on white bread for their noonday field lunch. The line, "at least stick a little lettuce in it" became a clarion call for fans who pumped their fists and shouted it out at the boys' weekend concerts.
Other standout tracks on Plow include the melancholy "I Can't Get Parts For It" and the surprisingly upbeat "Gonna Take A Little Cat Nap". Fans are eagerly anticipating the release of Worn-Out Farmers' sophomore album, "Polled Hereford", due to drop sometime in the spring, around calving season.
#2 ~ Abandoned Radiators ~ Unfortunate Leakage
The Radiators first fizzed in clubs around their local Clovis, New Mexico hometown. Co-lead singer Johnny Bobe spent his teenage years picking garbage at the town dump, where he scored a nice porcelain bathroom sink and three wire-wheel hubcaps, among other treasures. The dump is also where he met the love of his life, Cindy Havarti, whose specialty was plucking bourbon-stained, damp jazz albums out of the pungent debris. Johnny took Cindy home to his packed storage shed, where she eyed his collection of discarded auto parts and fell madly in love. Eventually the two began to combine their bounty, gazed up into each other's eyes, and knew they'd found their life's calling.
Neither of them had ever touched or even seen an acoustic guitar, not to mention a mandolin, but the scepter of Dizzy Gillespie convinced the couple that riches were theirs for the taking. They began collaborating at the Crimson And Clovis Inn on karaoke nights, and the besotted barstool patrons' enthusiastic clapping convinced Johnny and Cindy they had nowhere to go but up ~ to the stratosphere.
After a couple of months, Cindy spied a smashed guitar ~ at least she was pretty sure it was a guitar ~ atop a gaseous heap of smoldering junkyard Pampers and that sealed the deal. Cindy never did actually learn how to play the mysterious instrument, but hours of practice and jamming her fingers against random strings produced an original, otherworldly sound that made strangers at the C&C stop and stare. Desperate local record producer Ruben Rococo caught the duo's act one night when he stopped in for one last sip of liquor before he put an end to it all, and the (albeit) amateurs' act gave him one last straw to grasp onto. And the rest is history.
Ruben added his own on-key accompaniment to the duo's first recordings and slipped the completed disc across the local radio station's transom with a twenty-dollar bill, and voila!
Purists will quibble about the discordant notes and off-key vocals on Unfortunate Leakage, but New Mexicans erupted with joy upon hearing tracks like "Psssssssstt" and the lament, "Honey, Do You Have Roadside Assistance?"
AB has a full slate of concerts scheduled for the greater New Mexico area. Rumor has it they're adding a maracas shaker to the lineup.
#1 ~ Bingo Hall Bastards ~ Four Corners
The first time Penny Pinchet drove her grandma to the local bingo hall, she shook her head in disgust. "Gram, how can you spend your Social Security check on this lame time waster?" she asked as she pulled Grandma's walker from the trunk. When Grandma shuffled back to Penny's car later that evening with three hundred smackeroos clutched in her gnarled fist, Penny had second thoughts. Thenceforth Beulah, North Dakota's favorite diner waitress was hooked. The clack of the bingo numbers whirling inside their wire basket, the thunk of fifty daubers stamping paper cards in rhythm, the "ahhhs" of blue-haired wanna-be's when some old lady jumped up and shouted "Bingo!" were sweet music to Penny's ears. She even heard heard these reverberations in her dreams ~ on Tuesday and Thursday nights ~ and on early-bird Saturdays.
When Penny's boyfriend Glenn Brokaw started complaining and accusing her of cheating on him, she dragged him along to the bingo parlor. Glenn was a harder sell, but when he won fifty dollars by completing a letter X (thank you, B12!) he had to admit this bingo lark was kind of a rush.
Before long Penny was ditching her shifts at Ewald's and Glenn starting calling in sick to his Massey Ferguson boss and slipping off to the midday Eat & Feat event, where they munched on nachos and searched the master table for exactly the right combination of cards. At last Grandma had to sit the two of them down. "Kids, I know you really love bingo, but to be honest, you're embarrassing me in front of my friends. Bingo is an old-timer's game. We like having a place to go where you hipsters can't find us. We like a little peace. No offense."
Penny and Glenn exchanged chagrined glances. Grandma, sensing their unease, suggested, "How about you make a band?"
And that's how Bingo Hall Bastards came to be. Sure, the two of them tried one last time to return to the backlit building, but they found a hand-lettered sign on the door telling them, "Penny and Glenn are prohibited from entering these premises." Grandma had a lot of pull, it seemed.
One August night, still mourning their loss, Glenn picked up his brother Galen's guitar and began lazily strumming. Penny chimed in, emitting a low wail, a desolate cry. Thus, the hit "Blackout" was born. Before long Penny and Glenn found their new obsession. Songs tumbled out, like "Daubing My Heart" and the heart-wrenching "Oh 73".
They packed up Glenn's Kia Sorrento and headed down the highway to the big city of Fargo, where they met with punk record head Kitty Pau, who figured, what the hell, what've I got to lose? She brought in her nephew Tom to tap a cymbal and before long The Bingo Hall Bastards were the toast of the greater Fargo-Moorhead area. And the rest is history.
Now their liquor lounge concerts are near sellouts, with girl fans sporting black mantillas and men doffing ebony armbands. Americana is nothing if not really, really, really sad. And the band's depressing ditties really spike the bars' alcohol sales.
So, there you have it ~ the top three Americana albums, in this humble critic's opinion, of 2021. Search out Spotify to sample these bands' formidable wares.
Keep a Kleenex handy.