When you think of it, roots rock trades in some pretty weird ideas. For starters, being "real" replaces imagination and skill as the all-important virtue, a reverence for authenticity extending to mythical underdogs and nostalgia for a hard-luck, hard-livin' past ... dubbed "simpler days." Coupled with a Grapes of Wrath value system, you have a fairly abstract series of concepts city-dwellers have found incredibly appealing at different times, whether they're Romantic poets drawn to the vanishing pastoralism of the English landscape, Rolling Stone readers in the '60s, pub-rock enthusiasts a while back or even Sufjan Stevens fans today.
Pittsburgh guitar-slinger Tom Breiding's release with his band American Son, Time to Roll, walks the more imaginative side of the roots-rock line of demarcation. Lyrically, there's still a fair amount of bygone days, with daddies, granddaddies, old cars going nowhere, ain'ts and hometowns. At the beginning of "Daddy's Old Black Hearse" there's a crackling "vinyl" sound, and the disc itself looks and feels like a very small LP.
But on songs such as "Ain't No Quittin' Side of Me," Breiding's narrative impulse and evocative imagery overtake the nostalgia: "In a field in Pennsylvania I looked out on the rise / I saw the mighty serpent, the devil in his eyes / My heart knew his great poison but my feet marched just the same / Through the valley of death, my head held high callin' Virginia's name." Who or what Virginia is, we never learn ... there's no "Rosebud" hidden at the end of the album, either.
Musically, Time to Roll sounds modernized ... many songs have spacious, studio-magic atmospheres that give the dobros, shakers, acoustic guitars and Breiding's voice an epic sound. The more electrified tracks show off Breiding's and Jeff Stevens' hot guitar licks, often reminiscent of Tom Petty, Dire Straits or even Pretenders records. All in all, quality music that looks forward more than it looks back.
On the other end of the spectrum is another regional self-release, J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters' Dark Bar and a Jukebox, recorded when they were fresh off a recent tour with Hank Williams III.
The group plays a heavy authenticity card, and truthfully, the players' skills on traditional instruments ... particularly Dan Mazer's omnipresent banjo and Donnie Herron's fiddle ... are the album's strong points. No drums were harmed in the making of this record, though an upright bass and a rhythm acoustic guitar most certainly were. It's a pleasant listen, and sounds like it was recorded with a couple mics in a friend's kitchen at 4 a.m.
Lyrically, J.B. Beverley's songs travel the well-worn tropes of old highways, getting drunk, love lost, catching trains and owing money. Everybody knows someone like the character Beverley plays, obsessed with the romance of the down-and-out old times.
I use "character" advisedly: Dark Bar and a Jukebox seems at least one step removed from reality, a nostalgic simulation of a previous nostalgic representation ... the songs are more about the real as represented in old country music than the real itself. "They forgot ole' Hank's sorrow / They've lost the 'Man in Black' / They won't give George Jones the chance / to get his darlin' back," sings Beverley on the title track.
All Breiding and Beverley seem to share is frustration with a music industry that lost interest in selling this type of authenticity at least a decade ago, except as the occasional vanity project of pop stars like Springsteen, or possibly as hip-hop. And neither record probably meets the separate authenticity standard held by a younger indie set and many music critics. But as Breiding sings, "this ain't California, ain't no milk and honey here," and if the current musical climates of fantasy and freakiness do nothing else, they spur on those artists in search of something older, bigger, and more real than even itself.