Cody Diekhoff’s wryly aphoristic, darkly amusing country-folk songcraft evokes icons like John Prine and Steve Earle while it fits in with the top tier of current-day Americana artists like fellow Chicagoan Joe Pug. Recorded under Diekhoff’s performing name Chicago Farmer, his new album Backenforth, IL is just out and it tells a catchy bunch of tales. In a big city, his misfit characters would be called nonconformists – in a a rural area, they’re more likely to be considered smalltime criminals, and he’s got a soft spot for them.
The opening track, Everybody in This Town is the musical standout here. It sounds like the Wallflowers backing John Prine, with a Joe Day organ break that’s beyond gorgeous, something that keyboardists will be nicking years from now. Drawling over it, Dieckhoff contemplates the rougher side of smalltown life and how everybody’s business is everybody else’s.
The next track is Working on It, a swaying honkytonk tune with some tasty dobro. A song that breaks the fourth wall might not be the first thing you would think of in country music but this one does, and it works. A stoner folk tune with bite, The Twenty Dollar Bill at first seems like it’s going to turn into a sentimental tale about missing the old folks but takes quickly an unexpected turn that’s too good to spoil here.
With its bubbling pedal steel and brisk bluegrass shuffle beat, Backenforth is another song that at first sounds a lot more happy and laid-back than it turns out to be. The swaying, all-acoustic 200 Miles Away is a mystery story, with a country-blues feel like the stuff that’s been coming out of Brooklyn lately. The best tale of all of them here is The Jon Stokes Prison Break Blues, a scampering account of a smalltime crook who busts out of jail, with some unexpected punchlines – it’s a story worthy of Woody Guthrie.
The edgiest song here, another one that brings to mind Woody Guthrie, is Who on Earth, a scathing broadside directed at holier-than-thou hypocrites:
I got a ticket for a busted headlight
It’s 11 AM, sunny and bright
Limit’s 55, I was doing 57
Now I don’t know how I’ll get into heaven
And it gets better from there. The album ends with Backseat, a jaunty country-folk shuffle. Dieckhoff gets around a lot – it’s not unrealistic to think he might hit New York one of these days, watch this space.