I’ve never known exactly how to take Petunia And The Vipers.
Are they spoofing country music? was among my initial thoughts when first encountering them several years back. Is it musical theatre, and I just don’t get it?
Nope. They are the real deal. Hell, Phil Alvin has called them “One of the best bands in the world,” and Jonathon Byrd claims, “That’s not a band. It’s another world.”
Byrd nails it with that description. If you haven’t come under the spell of this sextet, prepare yourself. Remember Taco? (Yes, dating myself!) Now imagine that voice fronting Lefty Frizzell’s band, and you are getting close.
Better suggestion, pick up the new album Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome, the aptly titled third album released under the Petunia And The Vipers imprint, and come under the spell of this fiery, hillbilly-vaudevillian conflagration.
Admittedly, their music can be initially off-putting, and I freely admit I was a late adopter.
No two songs share a similar template, connected by little more than Petunia’s high-spirited falsetto. Western swing sits comfortably along touches of ragtime jazz and blues, with no little bit of the roots of country—Carter Family, Hank Williams, and even Jimmie Rodgers—populating every track, no matter how disparate they appear. Williams is apparent both musically and lyrically in “Lonesome,” a lap steel-rich number early in the set. Deceptively up-tempo, the “Ugliest, Bitterest, Coldest Dreary Place I’ve Ever Seen” is an obvious favourite, with Petunia hitting the most elevated of notes.
Lonesome qualities abound in “Blindly Wander,” one of several memorable original numbers; cascades of percussion (via Paul Townsend) highlight the desperation the songwriter explores. The origin of “Too Long” might be elaborate Chicago-blues, while “Jeanie Jeanie” and “We Did Not See the Light of Day” have less urbane roots. For yet another change of pace, on the old-timey “I Don’t Have to Go to High School,” Al Mader’s slam-poetry is set to Petunia’s ramshackle, punky rockabilly beats.
I will freely admit that Petunia and The Vipers is not for everyone. Some may prefer to experience this music a song-at-a-time: across a 12-song album, it can be a bit overwhelming. No matter. I don’t believe there is anyone performing music like this elsewhere: unique and original, then and certainly not cookie-cutter, note-by-number Nashvillian country. Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome is a spectacular if uneasy traipse through country seldom explored.