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It took Dave Insley only about four decades to realize his real life story would make a great country album.
"You know, it's the craziest thing," Insley says, taking a cigarette break outside Tempe's Yucca Tap Room after wrapping up the last set of the night with his topnotch honky-tonk trio, the Careless Smokers.
"I think just in the last three years, I've sort of gotten comfortable with being a country artist," says the 44-year-old singer and guitarist best known around Phoenix for his work with the '90s "newgrass" band the Nitpickers and the Americana outfit the Trophy Husbands.
"I used to get people saying, 'Man, your stuff is kinda corny. All these stupid-ass stories about a dumb kid growing up on the farm.' But then eventually I realized, that's my deal."
Certainly, Insley's bio reads like the lyrics to a classic country yarn. Born and raised on a Kansas wheat farm, Dave helped his dad harvest the crops while mom waited tables at a nearby truck stop. At 14, his family moved to Arizona, but passed on the big cities in favor of small rural communities like Yarnell, Wickenburg and Payson, where Insley eventually began playing country guitar in the honky-tonk saloons.
"We moved around a lot, in small towns out here," Insley says. "I didn't really live in the city until I started college."
By the time Insley landed at Arizona State University in 1979, Tempe was in the midst of its punk-rock explosion, led by such notable acts as Jodie Foster's Army, the Meat Puppets, the Varmits, and the Psalms (later to become the Gin Blossoms). Insley did his best to fit in, performing at the Mason Jar as part of the trio Chaingang and dressing in gimmicky prison stripes.
After Chaingang dismantled in late 1987, Insley did a brief stint with the Flagstaff-based trio Politics or Pontiacs, then took a long break from music, working as a whitewater-rafting guide for Scottsdale's Cimarron River Company, baby-sitting wealthy conventioneers on "soft adventure" raft rides and playing a little guitar around the campfires at trail's end.
As Americana and roots music began gaining respect among younger audiences, Insley got back in the game, riding the wave with the Nitpickers and, from 2000 to 2003, the Trophy Husbands.
But it wasn't until last year that Insley finally recorded his first solo album, Call Me Lonesome, and embraced the traditional country stylings he had previously felt inclined to disguise in trendy rock edgings.
Onstage at Tempe's Yucca Tap Room, dressed in a black dress shirt, black boots and jeans, Insley performs his straight-ahead C&W ditties about his mom, dad, dog and tractor without a trace of irony -- and the young college crowd of tattooed, pierced bohemians eats it up. The highlight comes in a warm tribute to his mom (Geneva, who passed away in 2001), named after the saying his dad (who joined her the following year) used to lay on the kids whenever their misbehaving got out of hand: "Geneva's Gonna Leave Ya."
"That stuff in that song, that's the fabric of my youth," Insley says afterward. "Working in a field, and my mom working at a truck stop, and I used to go up there and eat. She'd bring us hamburgers while she was waiting on truckers, you know?"
It wasn't until his parents passed and Insley began reminiscing about his youth that he realized he'd grown up inside a veritable jukebox full of terrific country songs.
"I look at my parents' Super 8 films, and it's like, 'Here we are in the parade. Oh, this was the year that Dave wore the Uncle Sam suit,'" he says, laughing. "And you're watching the parade, and here comes this black-and-white police cruiser, and you can swear the guy leaning out of it is Barney Fife. I mean, it's so classic. You look at that stuff, and it's like you're looking at a movie that they're trying to make look like classic small-town America. But it's real."
That realness is what Insley's audiences, regardless of age and hipness level, respond to. His own life's stories are so rich with wry, touching details that it's almost a disappointment when he interrupts a string of original songs to cover a classic by Waylon, Willie or another country star whose lyrics draw from separate histories.
Some of Insley's most popular songs are based on sayings his mom and dad used to drive him crazy repeating. The upbeat "Roy Boy" retreads a tongue-twister Insley's dad had to recite whenever he wanted to bum some smokes from his buddy Roy. It's the kind of oft-told tale you can imagine prompted rolled eyes and yawning mouths at the Insley dinner table, but set to a rollicking country gait, the word play rolls out like classic Roger Miller.
"As a songwriter, you tend to think that you wanna be more generic with what you write so you can reach a broader group of people," Insley says. "But it turns out that you actually have to be more specific about stuff, because that's what makes it real."
Insley feels lucky to be in a genre where artists become better with age.