Ever listen to Sturgill Simpson and think, “Man, this guy’s stuff would be so much more meaningful, and so much better, if he stopped merely trying to impersonate Waylon Jennings and threw in a little rock guitar or free-jazz sax or something else out of place but by its dissimilitude totally reflective of our fragmented, postmodern perspective”?
No? Well, then you are in the minority, my friend, because I’ve spoken with all nine people inside my head, and we are in agreement: Nostalgia equals death.
I guess Simpson has context working for him. Country musicians have strayed so far from tradition that old sounds new. As a huge fan of Kenny Uptain, I did not expect to listen to his new band and then sprint to my computer to label him “The Sturgill Simpson of the Blues.” The big ginger Fort Worth singer-songwriter is definitely not a nostalgist. He’s a progressively minded creator and genre agitator. Chucho, also featuring members of The Longshots and his former band, Foxtrot Uniform, is the definition of postmodern folk music or future folk. The quartet’s new debut recording, Monotonic Tailpiece, quotes The Black Keys (resonating beats, sound effects, layers) but, unlike them, never goes glam. Recorded with producer and contributor Jason Robert Burt at Solarity Studios in Dallas, all five tracks have an organic, acoustic heart. They are familiar yet also contemporary. Unlike Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Monotonic Tailpiece could not have come out in 1973. Monotonic Tailpiece could not have come out in 1993. Or 2003. Monotonic Tailpiece is a product of its era, this era, and is an honest representation of an honest artist’s thoughts and feelings.
Leadoff track “Peace Sign” is sort of a gleefully warped “The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat).” As the kick drum and snare trade haymakers like heavyweights at the end of Round 12, Uptain channels Tom Waits. “Well, I ain’t never met a soldier,” he sing-talks slowly, his voice low and gravelly. “Who came back from war / Too liberal to laugh at heavy jokes anymore.” The song transforms into a skipping stomp through the swamp brightened during the chorus by keyboardist Katie Robertson’s doo-doo-d’doo-doo backing vocals. “Brake Your Engine” is an eerie semi-bluesy psyche-out that would be the perfect soundtrack to Huggy Bear groovin’ down 125th Street in his platform soles and loud zoot suit, and the ballad “Charlie” –– part hymn, part dirge, which Uptain sings in a Dylanesque whine –– is a portrait of a down-and-out musician/poet/toker.
Uptain has assumed a literary approach to his lyrics. “I think when I grew up in the ’70s, Dylan was already clichéd,” he told me last year (“Foxtrot Uniform Keeps Dancing,” July 23, 2014). “You didn’t want to write a song like Dylan for some reason. I stayed away from all that stuff, and now I’m all the way back into it. I love it.”
I would put Uptain up there with anyone, including –– especially –– Simpson, who, I guess, for not writing about pickup trucks or drankin’ beer or high school football is hailed as some sort of Hemingway of the Honkytonk. (Faulkner of the Farm? Shakespeare of the South?) Uptain’s words are just as piercing, just as narrative (when they need to be), and just as colorful. Monotonic Tailpiece is full of great lines and images: “I’m as high as a giraffe on an elephant’s back,” “’Cause what good is a bank that ain’t on fire,” and “My name is Charlie / I am an artist / I play the guitar, a little ivory too / I am a pothead, I am a poet / I am more miserable than you.”
Because the music industry is mostly full of crap, you probably won’t hear any tracks from Monotonic Tailpiece on your favorite radio stations anytime soon. And you probably won’t read about Chucho and Kenny Uptain in Rolling Stone or Pitchfork either. Which is a shame, because Chucho is single-handedly dragging bluesy folk into the 21st century. On Friday, Simpson is playing Billy Bob’s, the World’s Largest Honkytonk ®. On the same evening, Uptain is playing The Ranch, Irving’s Largest Steakhouse. Something’s wrong with this picture.
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