When the Coalition of Alberta Troubadours met last spring to compare pandemic-influenced facial hair, songs, album release plans, and dark liquor, one imagines interesting conversations did unfold.
Perhaps Joe Nolan suggested he release his album first, break a bit of heavy trail for the older guys, with T. Buckley mentioning that he thought it was time he stretched out and went for more conventional offerings; seemed to be working for that Sturgill guy down south. Corb mentioned he was getting mighty riled about the environmental decisions of the Alberta government, and was thinking he may have to do something about it. Mighty riled.
John Wort Hannam, senior sage of this current group, likely didn’t say much, but when he did one imagines the younger fellas listened—after all, his beard put the rest of them to shame. Leeroy Stagger shared that he and his dirty windshield had been out on the coast, doing something a bit different, looking for inspiration.
A call was put out to Mike McDonald, but he made it clear he wasn’t much for joining artist coalitions, even with like-minded folks that he quite appreciates. Ben Sures would have told the others to go ahead and do their thing—he was gonna take a bit more time—the facial hair wasn’t really working for him—and he might catch up in 2022.
And then Matt Patershuk took his turn sharing. And by the time he was done, quizzical looks filled the room, one supposes. A second song about the laws of thermodynamics? Really? What the hell is entropy and what does it have to do with folk and roots music? Songs of circus horses? Didn’t Joe Ely cover that with the Indian cowboy song? Hell Matt, that one song doesn’t even have a refrain. Shane MacGowan’s teeth? “No money in those songs, Matt,” may have been the considered response.
Even Tyson, sitting silently at the table with a measure in hand, was shaking his head as the room cleared.
What’s a country singer from Northern Alberta to do, then? What he’s always done—put it all together, give it an honest effort, as they say, and just let it rip.
And that is what he’s done.
Matt Patershuk has not been one for following an established path. Sure, he plays gigs with some of his compatriots, and gets a bit of radio play that matters, but he isn’t one to worry about things like song structure, choruses, and ensuring minor keys don’t run together. When Patershuk gets an album organized, he is maybe thinking along the lines Michael Nesmith or Guy Clark once did: choose each word like it matters, because it does, and let the bastards argue. He already knows it is poetry; eventually the rest will figure it out.
An Honest Effort is a mighty album, its well-considered construction supporting a cast of characters, some real and others imagined, and situations that speak to those whose lives haven’t always unfurled as they might have thought.
An Honest Effort isn’t an album with an abundance of pep. With producer Steve Dawson, who also contributes his typical range of guitar sounds to the album, Patershuk has made a conscious decision allowing these songs to exist within their natural environment, that being reflection, consideration, and decomposition (I think that is part of “The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics;” could be wrong.) I can see some listeners desiring a few more beats per minute, but one hopes they allow the naturally presented songs to weave themselves into hearts and breaths. By the time we’re done listening, we are better for the experience.
A bullet travels “1.3 Miles” when shot from a .22 toward a quick, giggling coyote. Where does that projectile end up? Matt Patershuk let’s us know, detailing the lives it passes on its journey before falling dead to the ground.
“Jupiter the Flying Horse” and “Clever Hans” capture bits of history, Patershuk finding his own story within snatches of fact grasped, one imagines, through reading. Of these, “Jupiter” is the most satisfying, the freedom of circus imagination running wild. Still, I wouldn’t mind spending some time commiserating with Hans, the counting horse.
The album’s most upbeat songs are ideal.
“Turn the Radio Up”—damn, that is a good one. Let’s jump in the car, turn the radio loud, and just drive the northern prairie roads like we used to do. Patershuk captures a relationship that is unquestioned—they are in it for ‘the long haul,” to borrow a phrase John Wort Hannam may have shared at that planning session all those months ago.
Roots ‘n’ roll need more songs focused on dental triumphs, and “Shane MacGowan” fills that chasm, much like dentures do for The Pogues’ frontman’s brand-new smile. Not sure how Patershuk manages, but he has built a terrific song, filled with delightful images and lyrical asides, about dental implants. Patershuk adds a bit of accordion to the song, giving it just a touch of the right to envelope the scene.
There is also a pair of songs that are troubling, but oh so good.
For me, “Sunny” is the star of the album, a fully-realized character who has reached an end. What’s an abused woman to do when the situation has reached a point of no return? When Patershuk sings, “Sunny, it’s okay to run away, it’s okay to save yourself,” he is singing internal thoughts, the talking points of encouragement one must accept as a personal mantra to make the change that must be attempted.
Given a different situation, “Johanna” tells another story of leaving and personal growth. When she leaves her keys on the table, Johanna is starting a new chapter of her life, one as necessary to her as breathing. And it doesn’t really matter where she is going, what matters is that she is “riding that feeling while it lasts.” The guy voicing the story wishes her the best, but one knows he won’t be there to pick up the pieces: choices have been made.
Maybe Johanna, or someone much like her, is the subject of “Afraid to Speak Her Name,” the dirge-like rumination lacking a chorus. Potent this three-minute, steel-infused reflection of honesty is. It just lays out emotional, caustic pain in a series of language-rich, poetic images of colour, giving voice to a hurt that is to never cease.
Alberta is home to an amazing array of singer-songwriters. This has long been documented. Matt Patershuk brings a confident diversity to the mix. Not without influence—one hears a bit of James McMurtry here and there, and Guy Clark’s touch is infused within every songwriter worth their wooden stool—but Patershuk has the confidence in his vision to set aside convention and compromise. An Honest Effort is by no means an easy listen, but it is one that will be well-appreciated.
I’m glad Matt Patershuk doesn’t follow the rules. It allows him to create music that others wouldn’t consider. That music will always have a home at Fervor Coulee, wherever the hell that is.
(The album also features musical contributions from Gary Craig (drums/percussion), Jeremy Holmes (bass/mandolin), Fats Kaplin (banjo/fiddle/harmonica/ukulele), and Keri Latimer (harmony vocals.) Proceeds from An Honest Effort will be donated to Horse Lake First Nations School.