Friday, May 1, 2009

Album Review: John Doe and The Sadies, Country Club

I can’t remember exactly how I learned to love classic country music. It wasn’t from my central Wisconsin upbringing. My parent’s record collection consisted of Barbara Streisand and Johnny Mathis and that’s it. Seriously. And I cannot for the life of me remember if there was a country music radio station on air in the late 70s/early 80s in Oshkosh. If there was one, I sure wasn’t listening to it. I was in the college class of 1995, and in the early 90s on campus in the Chicago area it was grunge, Pavement, and the dregs of hair metal.

I must have picked it up some time while living in St. Louis in the late 90s, possibly during my Bob Dylan/Neil Young bender of 1999, a particularly miserable year for me. I do know that the first country CD I bought was Johnny Cash 16 Biggest Hits, followed quickly by Patsy Cline 12 Greatest Hits. And nothing says depression and despair like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” or “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

A decade later I am still collecting classic country music, still learning about its roots, and still blubbering into my beer when a deadly lyric knocks me on my ass. When I found out early this year that my favorite Canadian band, The Sadies, was teaming up with John Doe, founder and bassist for the seminar punk band X, I damn near put away the whiskey and cheered up! 2009 is turning into the year of the country covers, with Phosphorescent releasing the Willie Nelson tribute To Willie earlier this year, and Steve Earle set to release his much anticipated Townes Van Zandt tribute album on May 12.

An album of classic country from The Sadies is not entirely unexpected as they have been doing Sadies-fied versions of country tunes during their live shows for many years. Indeed, covers of Roger Miller and Bob Wills tracks made their 2004 live album, In Concert Vol.1 Likewise, John Doe has been playing with the country/folk/rockabilly band The Knitters for the last 25+ years.

The resulting album, Country Club, features Doe singing with The Sadies as the backing band, with the exception of two Sadies-penned instruments. The album launches into “Stop the World and Let Me Off,” made famous by Waylon Jennings, then covers songs from Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and several other greats of country music. Doe and fellow Knitters and X band member Exene Cervenka also contribute an original “It Just Dawned On Me,” which fits in very well with the other classic country themes on this record which include heartache, divorce, loneliness, adultery, and homicide. Man, isn’t country music wonderful?

Reviews of Country Club from critics much better known than I have been all over the place. Allmusic calls it a “casual, no-frills masterpiece,” and the Boston Herald rates it an “A,” while Toronto’s Now magazine calls it “average” and says, “Doe …has a voice you could charitably call serviceable,” and The Onion AV Club gives it a “C+.”

So, here’s the real deal from a non-professional critic. I’m somewhere between the Boston Herald and the AV Club. The album is good, but it is not great. To me these ridiculously talented musicians played it quite safe with their song selection and interpretation. It actually hurts me to say that I am underwhelmed by something that my favorite Canadian band is involved with, but it’s the truth. Doe’s voice, while solid, doesn’t do a lot for me when singing country. He doesn’t quite get me to sob into my Seagram's the way Hank Snow does. And would it hurt to let The Sadies’ Good brothers sing lead on a track or two?

I do love the instrumentals, which are classic Sadies pieces. Kathleen Edwards sings backup on what I think are the two best tracks, the aforementioned “It Just Dawned on Me,” and the Merle Haggard classic “Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?” It is overall a very enjoyable record, but I really wanted it to knock me into next week. Instead, it made me long for the originals.

I’m hoping that most of the people who hear this album will be hearing some, if not all, of these songs for the first time, which will hopefully cause them to look into the original artists. I really want more people my age (mid-30s) and younger to discover a love for classic country. I could use a few drinking buddies.

Sudbury Nickel.mp3
Are the Good Times Really Over for Good.mp3
Buy: Country Club (2009)

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