Succinct review: If your musical heroes are passing on, it is past time to find replacements to keep you vital, hip, and groovy. Start with Matt Patershuk and If Wishes Were Horses.
Long-winded essay that really would have benefited from an editor:
I attended last month’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival on a mission: find replacements.
No, not The Replacements, but given the rock ‘n’ roll focus of the festival, I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen Paul Westerberg et al on stage alongside The Meat Puppets, Hot Tuna, and John Kay.
While I traveled to San Francisco expressly to hear The Long Ryders—ya ya, a rock ‘n’ roll band, if one with fervent dusty roots (and then had the glorious fortune to have Michael Nesmith & his First National Band added to the lineup after the fateful decision to attend had been made) once committed I knew there was not an over-abundance of acts on the slate that I just had to see and hear.
The Waterboys? Of course, but more good fortune than design: had they been appearing in Edmonton, I doubt I would have made the hour drive. Bettye Lavette? Chuck Prophet? Naturally happy to experience live, but I have passed by them before, if regrettably. Mary Gauthier and Will Kimbrough? For sure—but they are well-established on my list of notables, and would I travel several hundred kilometres in an uncomfortable window seat expressly to hear them? Not likely, but certainly glad I did. Yola? Oh, yeah: needed to catch her, but I was already in love with her music having left the album on repeat on more than one occasion.
No, I attended the giant fest in Golden Gate Park in search of replacements. Guy Clark. Hazel Dickens. Ralph Stanley. Doc Watson. Odetta. George Jones. Jimmy LaFave. Charles Bradley. Sharon Jones. Tony Joe White. Who’s gonna fill their shoes, indeed?
My musical heroes are either dead or getting past the age of prime activity. Nanci Griffith no longer makes appearances. Willie’s concert voice left him some time ago, although his albums still kill; Ian Tyson is hanging in there, as are Fred Eaglesmith, Tom Russell, Billy Joe Shaver, Emmylou (ahh, Emmylou!) and a bunch of the rest certain spouses may not appreciate as much as some others may—but I need to find new musicians and singers to listen to.
That’s why I love being able to write about music: almost every month I discover a new ‘new’ favourite: Adam Holt; HeavyDrunk; Tom Savage; Kelsey Waldon; Ben Davis, Jr.; Mark Cline Bates; Grover Anderson; Meghan Hayes…
Heading south, I thought to myself, ‘Donald, get with the times: find someone new at HSB that you are going to enjoy for the next ten, fifteen, or however many years you have left.’ Spine-chilling fact: I have nineteen years left before outliving my dad! Yikes.
I made plans, and I didn’t want to spend my days running from stage-to-stage to catch this act or another—from past experience, not a satisfying experience that. I needed to be at the Porch Stage to catch The Long Ryders, so I would spend most of the day there: maybe I would like Whiskerman and Adia Victoria. I needed to be over at the Rooster to catch Nesmith, so I could enjoy sets from Robert Ellis and Rayland Baxter. Bedouine, too, around Kimbrough. With any luck, four or five new favourites to take home with me.
Sigh. Well, one: Adia Victoria is pretty amazing. The rest? Took me less than a single song to recall why I didn’t already enjoy melodically deficient fellas like Robert Ellis and Rayland Baxter, and Bedouine and Whiskerman… enjoyable, but not folk I am going to want to listen to for the remaining years I have. But, I did try.
Which is a long way to bring myself to Matt Patershuk. No, he didn’t play Hardly Strictly, but as I listened to various noisy boys wailing pitifully lazy ballads and aimless odes, Patershuk came to mind—more than once. See, for me, Matt Patershuk is a replacement, a (relatively) young and still emerging talent who has become a Fervor Coulee favourite, slipping into my iThingy playlist on random alongside the folks who are departed, and those worthy, capable, and still slugging it out. Matt Patershuk is a keeper, every bit as impactful as when I first heard most of the folks listed above.
Matt Patershuk, for the uninitiated, reminds this listener of Dave Alvin, more than anyone else. His songs—on his new album and his previous Same As I Have Ever Been—have a bluesy foundation, a hitch in their step recalling the way Alvin approaches Americana, by way of Lightning, Big Joe Turner, the Ashgrove, and the “Boss of the Blues.” Like Alvin, Patershuk is equally comfortable heading to the hills and valleys, “California Snow,” “Harlan County Line,” “Dry River,” and the like.
All of which makes If Wishes Were Horses Patershuk’s best yet. At times it is almost he is channeling my preferences, sliding into a rambling, wandering country-blues (“Velvet Bulldozer,” “Last Dance,” and “Red Hot Poker,” while at other times going straight-ahead gritty troubadour (“The Blues Don’t Bother Me,”—“I’ve had them so many times before, you see”— “Alberta Waltz,” and “Walkin’.”)
More than just fine titles, “Ernest Tub Had Fuzzy Slippers” and “Let’s Give This Bottle a Black Eye” take country lore and tropes to fresh, interesting places. The Ernest Tubb number— which sounds like a Nashville tall tale, but based on well-documented fact—is a slick piece of songwriting, full of quirky detail and inspired rhyme. A recurring cinematic, southwestern instrumental theme (“Horses 1-4”) unites the songs, with “Sugaree” and “Bear Chase”—“I got a feeling destiny is dead,” I do believe—further grounding us in tradition.
If you’ve stuck around this long—more than 900 words, only about a third of them directly related to Matt Patershuk’s new creation, thanks and I’m sorry. But, jayzus—If Wishes Were Horses is a damned good album. Lots of instrumental surprises, his songs are rock solid, and I think I could listen to Patershuk for most of a weekend.
When asked for my ten favourite Canadian albums of the last decade, I had If Wishes Were Horses penciled in at #10 for most of a week, before reality prevailed: I suspected I was elevating it simply because I was enjoying it so much that week.
Now, most of a month later, I’m thinking I made a grievous error removing it in favour of another terrific album. The album flows, an unstoppable set of folk-inspired, country-blues album filled with songs that take hold in lasting memory. Top ten Canadian of the decade? Maybe, maybe not. Top hundred roots and Americana of the decade? Absolutely.
If your musical heroes are passing on, it is past time to find replacements to keep you vital, hip, and groovy. Start with Matt Patershuk and If Wishes Were Horses.