Authenticity is a loaded word when it comes to country music.
Nearly every modern country act likes to shout out "real country fans" in arenas, even the ones pumping out bombastic party anthems about red Solo cups, shaking asses, and jacked-up pickup trucks. Then there's the historical struggle of standard honky tonk heroes Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Dwight Yoakam, guys who notoriously sparred with the country establishment, on the outs for coming across too hippie, too hardcore, or even too twangy.
But even if "real country music" is hard to define, it's hard to argue against the western credentials of Phoenix singer Tommy Ash. She started yodeling as a child, was playing weekends at the old Cheyenne Saloon by age 14, and even played Mr. Lucky's, Phoenix's most legendary honky tonk, which hosted Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Marty Robbins, Glen Campbell, and Wanda Jackson (see her fantastic live album In Person) before the nightclub shuttered its doors.
Raised on Shirley Temple and Marilyn Monroe films as a kid, Ash was naturally drawn to singing. Driving with her mom one day, she heard Leann Rimes' version of "Cowboy Sweetheart."
"We were driving in the car one day and flipping through the stations," Ash says. "'Cowboy Sweetheart' came on the radio and I started to sing along pretending I knew the song."
Rimes ignited in Ash a passion for country music. She dug deeper, listening to records by Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and others, those sounds mingling in her musical life alongside her mom and dad's classic rock favorites: ZZ Top, the Black Crows, Janis Joplin, AC/DC, and Elvis.
The hard-edged honky tonk of the Tommy Ash's latest, Sinner's Blood, bares witness to Ash's musical roots. It's a quick jab of a record, stacking slapback rockabilly riffs over propulsive shuffles. The title track isn't far removed from the cowpunk of the Blasters or X; "Sugar in a Bottle" evokes a Sun Records stomp; "When I'm On Gone" is a sweet sashay featuring revved up vocals from Ash. "Roots rock 'n' roll and rockabilly play a big role [in our music]," Ash says of the her backing band, the Tommy Ash Band. "I love the drive of rockabilly. Elvis, Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson in particular, because there's an attitude, an edge to their music. It's fast, it swings, there is swagger."
But it's not all bangers. "Friend" is a brassy ballad, with Ash employing an ace falsetto over languid pedal steel swells and "Yodelin' Blues" evokes an imagined spaghetti western directed by David Lynch. Ash yodels, and it's chilling.
The band's found plenty of footing here in Phoenix, playing Valley Fever shows and opening dates for Dwight Yoakam, but has also found favor with Americana-obsessed European audiences. The band recently performed overseas, playing stops in Santa Susanna, Spain and headlining a country music event in Romilly, north of Paris.
"It was cool at the shows to see American flags and cowboy hats everywhere," Ash says. She credits the group's overseas popularity to their honesty, noting that the band's sound overcame language barriers, establishing a musical connection.
"People overseas really appreciate American roots music," Ash says. "I think blues, country, [and] Americana are all music with truth, music that speaks to you with or without lyrics. You don't always need to know what the song is about to feel the emotion."
The Tommy Ash Band is scheduled to perform with Dwight Yoakam at Apache Gold Casino in San Carlos, Saturday, November 8.
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