New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: hillbilly music

Great Oldtime Country Sounds from the Weal and Woe

The Weal and Woe write great original oldtime style country songs, and play them with soulful expertise. The guy/girl close harmonies of guitarist Russell Scholl and bassist Barbara Ann have an unaffected southern charm, soaring over an early 1950s style backdrop with fiddle, lapsteel and occasional resonator guitar. Ex-Moonlighter Mark Deffenbaugh’s lapsteel steel playing is absolutely off the hook, whether adding smartly spaced accents or sly Leon McAuliffe-style swoops and dives – just his parts alone make their debut album The One to Blame one of the most enjoyable recent releases in Americana roots music. The Weal and Woe are playing the record release show at the Jalopy on Feb 18 at 9 – if really smart songwriting and great musicianship are your thing, you should go.

Most of the songs on the new album are short, clocking in at about three minutes or less. They get things going with the harmony-driven In the West, which has more of an oldtime, 19th century folk feel than anything else on this collection, with a tasty, sailing resonator solo that Deffenbaugh hands off elegantly to fiddler Jason Cade. The title track is one of those songs that sounds like a classic from about 1952, except that it’s new. Barbara Ann sings it with a sad, biting edge, from the point of view of a girl who’s thinking about going to the bottom of her neighbor’s pool, and staying there – and maybe taking the guy who broke her heart with her. Once again, the steel handing over a terse instrumental break to the fiddle is absolutely gorgeous. They Think We Don’t Know, a brisk shuffle with twinkling steel guitar, also has an element of mystery. Sung as a duet, it’s about a couple who are the talk of the town, but because everybody wants to set them up? Or because they’re on the fast track to some serious cheating together? “If wishes came true, I’d drive them crazy with my moves,” Barbara Ann croons: “I’d stay up late and drink their booze,” Scholl replies goodnaturedly.

The one instrumental here is Kings County Blues, a western swing number driven by swaying fiddle, steel in the background until Deffenbaugh busts out with a clever, wryly swooping solo. The longest song is a big, somewhat brooding ballad, Taking One on the Chin, which chronicles someone’s long decline to barroom dissolution, pensive lapsteel contrasting with Cade’s offhandedly bright lines. There are also two covers here: a vintage Grand Old Opry-style duet version of Frankenpine’s clever I Don’t Love You ‘Cause You’re Pretty, and a brisk bluegrass take on the country gospel song S-A-V-E-D. Fans of the Maddoxes, the Louvins, the Delmores, Hank Williams and also current country songwriters like Laura Cantrell who’ve found a home in an oldtime Nashville vernacular will love this record.

Mister, Is That Your Cow?

Of all the bands witnessed during this absurd adventure, Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. have been by far the most fun. They don’t just plug in and play: they put on a fullscale spectacle. And like the best spectacles, this one works on many different levels. On the surface, they’re a funny country band. But if you listen closely, they take you back to a 1946 of the mind (that time period gets fuzzy: sometimes it could be the 50s). Between songs, frontman Michael McMahon will use a song title or a lyrical riff as a springboard for a joke, and the genius of what he does is that it’s stuck in this time period as well, as if the world had ended shortly after Hiroshima. The topics are PG: Romeo and Juliet, hot dogs, drag racing; the jokes are not. Of course, McMahon and his bandmates go off script a lot, which is where it’s funniest. The music this band plays is just as much a homage to the hillbilly hits of that era as it is a satire of those styles, and those times – sometimes an absolutely venomous one. And it’s politically aware, which is how it connects with this era – but the bottom line is that it’s just plain funny.

And the jokes aren’t just limited to the sonics. Somebody in this band – or someone this band knows – is an amazing graphic artist. Along with their matching Grand Old Opry suits, they bring period-perfect show posters, and sometimes beer coasters. Last night at Otto’s, if only for a minute, acoustic guitarist Jon, frontman/lead guitarist Mike and bassist Garth all wore matching white paper hot dog vendor hats. And they also had a raffle, the band’s snarky pal “Betty” in her drum majorette outfit handing out free tickets to everybody in the audience. Pretty much everybody won something, sometimes more than once (a couple of regulars got cut off after awhile). As much as the prizes all looked like they came from the dollar store, they were as twistedly cool as you would expect from these guys: a VHS movie featuring both Lon Chaney and Harrison Ford (this was an earlier, silent era Harrison Ford, McMahon explained); a three-pack of old-fashioned clip-on ties just like the ones the band was wearing; a towel for bowlers and a blow-up beach ball that was soon making its way around the room, just for starters.

That was the show. The music was just as good. This may have been the dingy back room at Otto’s, but the band played as if they were at the Ryman. McMahon played terse, occasionally spiraling, reverb-drenched, sophisticated countrypolitan solos on his big hollowbody over his bandmates’ slinky shuffle. Occasionally there’d be a subtle – or completely obvious – reference to Johnny Cash, or a rockabilly guy like Ronnie Hawkins, or the Maddox Brothers. The drag-racing song nicked the modulations from Maybellene; a surreal trip to the stratosphere echoed the creepiest stuff the Louvin Brothers did.

Not to spoil the punchline, but one of their funniest numbers, Mister Is That Your Cow, is more of an anthem for vegetarians than for carnivores. This band doesn’t usually hit anything head-on: they’d rather let the crowd fill in the blanks, if only to see who’s paying attention. Their best song, I Hate You, is an exception to that rule. They saved that one for late in the set – by that time, all the drunks were whooping it up and probably missed how that song is actually about a lot more than hate. But it would be a spoiler to explain it – you just have to hear it. Where Sit & Die, as they call themselves, really ought to be is on Broadway, or in Branson – there’s an aging demographic there who, theoretically at least, would appreciate this shtick better than anybody else because they actually lived through it the first time around. The band’s next gig is at Rodeo Bar on Oct 12 at around 8:30 PM.