Growing up, I basically wrote off country music as a genre that I would never enjoy. While I had not realized it at the time, most of the country music I had heard was just pop music meagerly disguised with acoustic guitars. It was not until my later years in college that I learned that there was a whole other side to country music, quite unlike what I grew up hearing on the radio. One of the first bands to help me realize this was Armchair Martian, a relatively unknown punk rock band from Ft. Collins, Colorado. While they were not a country band, the band’s vocalist, Jon Snodgrass, had a noticeable country twang to his voice, which was something I was not accustomed to hearing in rock music. I quickly fell in love with the band, and eagerly acquired all of their releases. Throughout Armchair Martian’s career, they slowly began to adopt more of a country flare. In fact, once they called it a day, Jon Snodgrass went on to form a country rock band called Drag the River with Chad Price of the punk band ALL.
What I have come to love about the brand of country that Drag the River plays is something that most of the country I grew up hearing lacked: emotion. Almost all of the country of my youth was completely bereft of emotional depth. They may have been singing about heartbreak or lost love, but you could not “feel” it. I suppose that is not hard to imagine, as most of that music was written to achieve commercial success, and not necessarily convey true feelings of hurt. Drag the River does not suffer from that problem; when they sing about heartbreak and disappointment there is a legitimate sense of sadness that permeates the music, one that originates from the struggles of living. Their songs are open and confessional, and are ones that we all can relate to, as they are derived from candid human experience. And who does not enjoy hearing the laments of drunken nights, harkening back to alternative country’s forefathers, Uncle Tupelo?
What I specifically wanted to talk about here is one of Drag the River’s releases, a 7” record that I only recently really paid attention to, despite having been listening to the band for years. “Garage Rock” is a 4 song 7” that does a good job of presenting the melancholy and sorrowful side of country that I have come to love. Drag the River do have their fair share of more rockin’ songs about drinking, but none of those are found on this 7”. Instead, these songs are more reflective and open to interpretation. Perhaps the highlight of the 7” is the opening track, Return. While it is hard to pin down specifically what Jon is singing about on the track, there is a haunting character his voice, one that strikes me every time I hear it. The song has an air of mystery about it, allowing the listener to read into it and make their own conclusions. With each listen, I find myself pondering lines like: “I’ve been craving things beyond the first 13.” And while “Garage Rock” is worth checking out for Return alone, the other tracks don’t fall far behind. There is an alternate recording of Caleb’s Grave, one of my favorite tracks from 2008’s “You Can't Live This Way.” I might even like this version better than the original. The addition of steel guitar really fits the song’s somber tone. Chad Price’s Best & Worst is a dejected reminiscence of times past, both good and bad (though mostly bad). The song ends with the line “A friend of mine said, I’ll sleep when I’m dead. And I pray that’s true. I’m tired and I’m through.” I can’t help but think of Warren Zevon’s classic song I’ll Sleep when I’m Dead.
When the stresses of life start bringing me down, I can always rely on Drag the River to help me back up. If you are not familiar with the band, I highly recommend that you give them a listen. You don’t need a record player to hear the 7”, just head on over to Suburban Home Record’s Bandcamp page. And if you like what you hear, you can get the mp3s for under $2. Well worth the price of admission, if you ask me.