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Country music history boasts many fruitful collaborations among family members: The Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, Bill and Earle Bolick (the Blue Sky Boys), the Monroe Brothers -- the list is long and fabled.
You might never have heard of the Good family, depending on how deep your roots run. But Canadian guitarists Dallas and Travis Good -- the second generation of Good country pickers, pun unavoidable -- are currently two of our northern neighbor's premier twangers.
In addition to their ceaseless session and side work, Dallas and Travis are full-time members of the Sadies, which is sort of a country-instrumental band. Except for the surf-guitar riffs. And the garage sound. And the Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Elvis and Byrds covers, and. . . .
Wait. Let's back up.
"I don't mind being called a 'space cowboy,'" says Sadies' drummer Mike Belitsky, late of indie-rock combos Jale and the Pernice Brothers. "But it's always kind of a drag to see people try to pigeonhole your music. Unless they say a lot of other things at once, like 'country' and 'martini glasses' and 'space rock' and 'surfboards,' you know? That sounds more like they're trying to classify you, but they can't. So that's okay. But 'space cowboy' I don't mind. I was always into rockets and the space program and all of that stuff. When I was a kid I tried to build a rocket in my yard out of a trash shed. And cowboys, you know . . . who didn't want to be a cowboy? Yeah. I don't mind that."
The Sadies' Tremendous Efforts, like its predecessors Precious Moments (1998) and Pure Diamond Gold (1999), is out on Bloodshot Records, longtime home to several firebrand alt-country acts. But it also represents the third time the Sadies have worked with famed indie-rock producer Steve Albini, who mixed and engineered 11 of Tremendous Efforts' 13 tracks, and alt-country it decidedly ain't.
Truth be told, the Sadies have always been one of the least countrified bands in the Bloodshot stable. For the record, however, the phrase "space cowboy" comes from the band's own press release, and, despite the unfortunate Steve Miller association, it goes some way towards an accurate description of the Sadies' music.
Still, Belitsky -- along with Dallas and Travis Good, and upright bassist Sean Dean -- is getting just a little bit frustrated with the whole category thing.
"I think all of us would probably prefer to be put in the 'garage' category over the alternative country category," Belitsky continues. "I don't think [alt-country] is really what we are at all, although there are some of those elements in the music. It's kind of strange, being on Bloodshot, because I think they see that side of us more than some of the others. I think we also have this misleading reputation as a mainly instrumental band, because of the live shows and the crazy guitar work that Dallas and Travis do, and that's really not the case either."
A fair enough gripe, and easily verifiable. In addition to their work for Bloodshot, the Sadies have in recent memory served as a partial house band for last year's Tom Waits tribute New Coat of Paint; they backed Andre Williams, notorious Chicago R&B wild man, on his 1999 album Red Dirt; and they've collaborated with indie rock icons ranging from Jad Fair to the Mekons' Sally Timms. Clearly, "alt-country" is a limiting category.
But although Belitsky may be rightfully leery of the alt-country tag, the darker traditions of country and folk music undeniably serve as one tributary feeding into the Sadies' main waters; it's just that there are a lot more ingredients in the stew. (If the Sadies are alt-country, that is, it's only inasmuch as the Violent Femmes were "alt-folk.")
The Sadies are eminently familiar with heavy, almost gothic folksy material, as evidenced on their cover of Jeffrey Lee Pierce's "Mother of Earth" and the fearsome instrumental "Empty the Chamber," which plays like an outtake from A Fistful of Dollars. But Tremendous Efforts' opener, "Pass the Chutney," is a light-footed, hollow-bodied two-step that's as swinging as anything Buck Owens and the Buckaroos ever recorded; and their cover of the Carole King-Gerry Goffin-penned "Wasn't Born to Follow," famously recorded by the Byrds, is a spot-on countrydelic gem.
Despite the fast stylistic switch-ups on the new record, Belitsky initially claims that he doesn't remember many details about the actual recording of Tremendous Efforts: "Particularly for the bluegrass numbers, like 'Ridge Runner Rag,' I was really just learning the songs, so during the recording I was more concerned with getting my part right than I was about how it all sounded together. It's wild to hear it out at a club or something, because a lot of times I don't even remember cutting parts of it."
Press him a little, however, and the memories emerge, and aren't they sweet. Take the roll call on Tremendous Efforts, which features an older generation of Goods -- including the legendary Good Brothers, comprised of Dallas and Travis' father, Bruce, and uncles Larry and Brian -- on sundry strings.
"Yeah, we had a lot of people with us on this record. Travis and Dallas' family contributed a lot; Brian and Bruce play dobro and guitar, and Larry plays banjo . . . oh, and their mom, Margaret, has been on all our records; she does a lot of singing on this one."