It’s a very easy and tiresome cliche to make that country music is the one genre of music that it’s okay to hate. This is an enormous shame that can almost certainly be tied back to tonal shifts not just in pop music but in the famed Nashville epicenter of American country music itself. The deeply personal and introspective material of acts like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and John Prine have long been shafted aside for cookie-cutter party anthems by the likes of Florida-Georgia Line, where the word of the day is always interchangeable songs about beer, trucks, riverbeds, and women in jean-shorts.
It’s a sordid state of affairs for a genre of music unfairly maligned in its entirety for the low quality of a few. Thank goodness then, for The Old Rochelle, a Lowell-based country-folk quintet who clearly have deeper things in mind. The group is helmed by guitarist/vocalist Bucky Fereke, a well-known figure in the Mill City both as a solo artist and bandleader of former act The Pony Express, who himself commands a booming, world-weary baritone filled with wisdom and regret. The Old Rochelle themselves, meanwhile openly defy the glitzy Nashville machine with their sound, which not only harkens back to classic Hank Williams-era country balladeering, but draws from an incredibly wide range of other influences; folk-punk, maritime sea shanties, jazz manouche, zydeco, rockabilly, and even elements of bright, sprightly shoegaze.
To match such a rust-coated sound, must inevitably be similarly wisened songs, and The Old Rochelle’s full-length debut Pony Steps contains no dearth of wistful country anthems. There are no lunkheaded tributes to shiftless drinking and mudding to be found here, so much as morose ditties and ballads tackling a wide range of personal subjects, including personal rebirth, (“West Coast”) existential despair, (“When Molly Sings”) and romantic longing, (“The Lonely Passion of Joey Heatherton”) while still finding time for a good old fashioned folkie breakup song. (The voluminously named “That Was The Last Damn Time I Cry (Over Someone Like You)”, whose titling conventions could have fit right at home among the crazily named country hits of yore.)
Pony Steps is a record filled with thematic highs and lows, but the emotional centerpiece of the record is undoubtedly the 6th track; the ambient, lullaby-like “Flyin’ Through The Ages”. On an album already filled with emotional gut-punches, it’s this song, a reflective contemplation on the passage of time, and slow lurch towards old age, that hits its intended mark most beautifully, with Fereke’s dusty croon assisted by some welcomely heartfelt atmosphere-building from cellist Katey Lapinski, accordionist Tony Cavalieri, along with some truly cosmic guest solos from Peter Zakardas and Monica Mitchell. (Lap steel and violin respectively)
When was the last time you heard that kind of empirical profundity from the likes of pop-country dullards like Toby Keith or Luke Bryan?
Don’t answer that.
FFO: The Pogues, Gordon Lightfoot, Mark Knopfler, Great Big Sea, Ellis Paul