Imagine a sun-baked two-lane Texas straightaway. You can just make out the gnarled and arthritic shapes of mesquite trees twisting out of the ground through the watery haze of a blacktop mirage. You feel the heat of the sun on your arm as it hangs out the driver’s side window, air-swimming through the warm passing breeze. Competing with the drone of the road, the radio blares a Western story song or swells with the bend of a mournful pedal steel.
This is the imagery that Fort Worth Americana troubadours Left Arm Tan want to conjure with their brand of Texas country. Their name is a clever nod to a Texas driver’s inadvertent asymmetrical sunbathing. Their goal is to be the soundtrack to that scene – to be the music drifting out of the open window along a narrow interstate.
“We try to write the kind of music that we would like to hear if we were on a long road trip,” said Brian Lee, one of Left Arm Tan’s co-lead-vocalists. “We like to make music that takes you back to a time or place that feels good, feels right, and that makes you want to roll down the windows and enjoy the road.”
In addition to Lee, who also plays guitar and keys, Left Arm Tan is composed of guitarist/mandolinist and fellow lead vocalist Troy Austin, pedal steel player Mark Belding, guitarist Daniel Hines, bassist Paul Jenkins, and drummer Tim Manders. Songwriting duties are shared mainly among Austin, Lee, and Hines, the “primary instigators,” as Lee calls them. All of the members contribute vocal harmonies, which, at their fullest, are reminiscent of the smooth vocal blending of bluegrass legends Union Station.
This week, the sextet is releasing its fifth studio album since becoming a band in 2010. El Camino perhaps sees the six guys embrace their open-road aesthetic most directly. The title track is about an intrepid Romeo heading south to see his lady-love, and the album’s cover features an empty desert highway blending into the hood of the iconic car/mini-truck hybrid in the title. Recorded over a year between two studios – Studio de la Ranja, with Austin producer Jim Vollentine (Spoon, Band of Heathens) and Pleasantry Lane, with Dallas’s Salim Nourallah (Old 97’s), the nine tracks are a mix of the band’s usual blend of bluegrass-tinged country rock with some surprising sonic left turns.
The experimentation that began on LAT’s last album, Lorene, was a subtle subconscious drift outside the lanes of what country music is supposed to sound like. On El Camino, the band is passing traffic on the shoulder of the highway. There’s plenty of the usual “straight country” songs you might expect, such as “Looking at the World Through the Windshield,” which borrows the classic “Boy Named Sue” talk-sing pentameter, and the up-tempo line-dancer “Give a Damn.” But you wouldn’t find the smoky jazz hall vibe of “Mistress Freedom” on a Pat Green record, and “Shortcut to Oblivion” (the album’s highlight track) with Lee’s infectious melody and chimy piano line, is just as much coffee shop indie rock as it is Red Dirt country. The sum total shows musicians quite comfortable with who they are as songwriters, regardless of whether they fit country radio’s often narrow format.
“It’s funny,” Lee said, “when we go out to hear live music, particularly from artists getting a lot of radio attention, we all kind of look at each other a say, ‘Well, I guess this is what we need to do to get more radio play.’ Then we ask ourselves, ‘Do we really want to do that?’ And we all just say, ‘Um, no. No, we don’t.’ ”
Lee, a self-described “recovering Nashville songwriter,” is relishing the ability and willingness of the band to stretch its legs musically.
“I learned to write songs in Nashville,” he said. “And when I moved back to Texas and got into the Texas music scene, I realized, ‘Hey, these guys are doing just fine, and they’re not writing in the ‘format.’ They’re writing what feels good.’ And I’ve really enjoyed writing in that kind of environment, creating something today that wasn’t there yesterday.”
Left Arm Tan album release show
7pm Fri w/Austin Tullos at Magnolia Motor Lounge, 3005 Morton St, FW. $10-30. 817-332-3344.