Deliver the Goods
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."
Indeed she does; the dolorous closing track, "Before I Wake," is easily heard as a star turn for Margaret Good all on her own. But despite showcasing the combined efforts of the Good family in all their many combinations, Tremendous Efforts isn't solely a family affair; or more precisely, the Sadies' extended family doesn't fall along bloodlines exclusively.
The "special guests" list reveals a host of names that will be instantly familiar to close followers of contemporary folk/Americana music. There's Bob Egan (Freakwater, Wilco) on pedal steel; Jim Cuddy, James Gray, Greg Keelor and Glen Mitchum -- nearly the entire lineup of Canadian folk-rockers Blue Rodeo -- on vocals and guitars; and Rick White (Eric's Trip), who also contributed Tremendous Efforts' artwork, on Moog synthesizer.
First-time contributor Paul Aucoin, a young man who played vibraphones on the album, is experiencing the mixed blessing of doing his first tour with the Sadies, which means that he's getting ribbed nonstop.
"We don't put him in the mix, obviously," says Belitsky loudly, mugging for Aucoin's benefit. "He's just a strong kid who likes to lift things. We tell him he's miked up and stuff, but he's not; he's in his own monitor, that's it. It's kind of a Linda McCartney scenario. He's a rookie, but he's a great driver and he doesn't drink, so . . ."
There are muttered noises in the background. Belitsky giggles.
"He heard me," he says impishly. "He's leaving the room."
Vibraphones, Morricone-esque instrumentals, vocals that recall John Lennon's screeching at the beginning of "Mr. Moonlight" . . . although "alt-country" is an accurate enough label for one card in the Sadies' deck, it doesn't quite do justice to the whole. The Sadies' sound, speaking broadly, is a high-octane blend, a backwoods popskull homebrew encompassing country, bluegrass, swing jazz, garage rock, surf twang, rockabilly stomp, and a lot more.
"When I was growing up," says Belitsky of his musical education, "my dad pretty much had six records. He had Let it Be, the White Album, Sergeant Pepper, Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison, a Julie Andrews record, and maybe a Carol Burnett comedy album. Those were the records I heard growing up. Then my sister got me a copy of The Ramones Leave Home for my 13th birthday; for a while I was all into that heavy punk stuff, the English punk bands mostly. But then I played in a country band in high school, you know, just to make money on the weekends, and so I started listening to George Jones, Merle Haggard. And Travis and Dallas picked up on a lot of that kind of music, just by osmosis, through the work their family was doing.
"But Dallas is a huge garage rock fan; so am I. I love all that Iggy and the Stooges stuff. [Bassist] Sean is really into the Shaggs. I can't really say that one kind of music overshadows the other. So I think we've sort of naturally cultivated this weird kind of amorphous sound."
Tremendous Efforts, true to Belitsky's claim, showcases a medley of diverse sounds, yet it's never scattered. The one-two shot of "Pass the Chutney," followed by a rave-up cover of "Loved on Look" (which kicked off Elvis' 1969 comeback album From Elvis in Memphis), is the only truly jarring moment on the Sadies' latest, and even it's intentional.
"We talked a lot -- you might even say argued -- about whether to put those two songs at the head of the record. But we all ended up happy with how they worked together. They really kind of showcase two sides of the band; the instrumental, very musical side, and the side that comes out in the live performances, that's really loud and wild. I think it illustrates what we do pretty well.
He pauses, then finds a description he likes. "I always imagine people ice skating to 'Pass the Chutney.' And then the ice breaks at the beginning of 'Loved on Look,' and everybody falls on their asses."
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