Friends, Enemies, and Internet Losers: I have returned.

It was so much easier when all country sucked

Life is ever changing, but there was one constant I thought I could always count on: the fact that I thought I would continue to hatecountry music; however, now I’m not so sure. Like the movie killers, who stalk their prey slowly from behind then attack without warning, likeable country music has been sneaking up on me for some time and I think it’s about to pounce.

I promise you it’s not my fault.

I have always been a fan of the old “biggies”: Cash, Jennings, Nelson, etc, but I have always given the newer country a pass. Garth Brooks sucks, Toby Keith is a half-literate jingoist, and Shania Twain is nothing more than a singing belly-button. Don’t even get me started on Big and Rich. What I like about the “outlaws,” if you will, is their ability to pen and perform a song about the darker recesses of soul, the pains of love, and the true wonderment of being alive without sounding contrived. The only contemporary, mainstream country song to come anywhere near accomplishing this is “Not Ready to Make Nice” by the Dixie Chicks which is essentially a giant “Fuck You!” to a vast majority of country music fans, deservedly so.

Recently, I have felt country music closing in on me. But unlike the Garth Brooks explosion of the 1990s, this time the music is good.

The first time I saw Swank I didn’t. It was at The Town Pants 10 year anniversary show and I kind of drank their set out of my short term memory. When I was invited to the release party for “Campfire Psalms” at The Railway Club, I enjoyed one of the best CD release parties I had ever attended. Added to that, Swank’s particular brand of country hearkens back to when country music was as true as a good pick-up truck.

While on the subject of pick-ups… If spotlighting deer in a rusted out Chevy is how you like to get your kicks, check out the uproarious redneck rock of The Cadaver Dogs. Their latest album, “Pariah Social,” is probably what The Clash would have sounded like if Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had spent their teenage years in a small town where cow tipping was the closest proxy for political rebellion.

If twang is your thang, get yourself out to see Shiloh Lindsey. Okay, so she doesn’t really have a lot of “twang,” but this country girl can outparty the boys and live to write lyrics about it. All 10 tracks on “For My Smoke” are packed with enough talent and true country sensibility to make Gretchen Wilson move to a Himalayan monastery and shut the fuck up forever. At least one can hope.

Fence sitting out in the pasture are The Stumbler’s Inn. If you didn’t know what to expect, one glance at Al Myrfield as he takes the stage might make you think that you’re in for a 45 minute, Death Metal assault; however, with one strum of his guitar as the band kicks into “Rely” or “Old Tin Road,” the audience relaxes and starts bobbing along to some of the best country-informed rock in the city. If you can imagine The Doors being bound to Blue Rodeo, soaked in whiskey, then set on fire in centre of a cannabis crop, you’d be getting close.

(When The Stumbler’s Inn played CiTR’s “Shindig” at The Railway Club a couple of weeks ago, one of the judges’ comment sheets suggested the country was “forced.” I’m not sure how in the hell one would or could force country but the comment was still better than “I didn’t come here to see Pearl Garden!” which is the comment my band got at Shindig 16 years ago.)

Bands like Earlstown Winter and artists like Valerie Graham aren’t necessarily country acts but effectuate the positive legacy of the travelling balladeers. Sometimes upbeat, sometimes brooding, their songs often have a swing to them that can’t quite disguise the fact the something more than just a toe-tapping good time is buried in the lyrics. The songs are all those little stories we’re not sure we’ve heard before but are certain we’d lived them at one time or another. One can easily imagine Val Graham singing lullabies at The Crossroads and I am certain that Jonathan Truefitt and Earlstown Winter could play any roadhouse in the world and win the crowd over in eight bars or less.

I usually classify music one of two ways: good or bad. For a very long time, even the slightest hint of country in an artist’s music was a one-way ticket to the “suck” bin, but with all the incredible country-ish music coming out of our city right now, it is a habit I will need to reconsider.

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