“Country Club is the result of a drunken promise or threat I made to Travis & Dallas [Good, of The Sadies] the first night we played together in Toronto. We’re not sure why it sounds like it’s from the sixties. Maybe that’s our favorite era of country music or maybe that’s what we listened to when we first learned how to play it.”
John Doe and The Sadies combine talents for an album of classic country covers and originals written in the spirit of those covers. On paper this is a perfect, inspired partnership. The Sadies can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes and John Doe … well, he’s John Fucking Doe. Do I really need to explain the greatness of Under The Big Black Sun? Come on.
If there’s an achilles heel in the Doe catalog, it’s his occasional drift toward the singer/songwriter safety net. What made those tendencies work in X was the fact that the band was a lockdown rhythm machine. Doe wasn’t a great bass player, but he developed a cool, melodic style that meshed perfectly with DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom, both of whom are gods among men. People forget that X was essentially a power trio. Without that sturdy base, Doe’s songwriting occasionally veered into coffeehouse territory, which ain’t no place for John Fucking Doe.
This is where The Sadies come into play. In an era of lifeless, soulless indie pop and rock, they are a swaggering, four-man strike force of awesome. Dallas Good (lead guitar, vocals), Travis Good (guitar, fiddle, vocals), Sean Dean (bass), and Mike Belitsky (drums) can tackle surf, psych, country-rock, bluegrass, punk, gospel, garage rock, rockabilly, ballads (murder and otherwise), reels, breakdowns, songs with vocals, and songs without vocals. They bring a full panoply of A game and force other musicians to bring their A game to keep up.
Neko Case (pictured left) is a prime example. Like Doe, she’s got a honey-sweet voice and a legit rock ‘n’ roll background. However, also like Doe (the solo artist), she’s become too comfortable with torch songs and mid-tempo rock, as if she were going out of her way not to offend her fanbase. I don’t know what the problem is because anyone’s who heard her sing “Thee Exalted Potentate Of Love” knows she’s got the kung fu grip. The beauty of The Sadies is that they allow that side of her to flourish, so Neko’s collaborations with them — Furnace Room Lullaby and The Tigers Have Spoken, specifically — are more spirited than her other efforts.
Which brings us back to Country Club. When the album works, it’s because it plays to the strengths of The Sadies, who easily cover the ground between honky-tonk, countrypolitan, and bluegrass. The production is pretty good — it sounds great on vinyl, anyway — and there are excellent contributions from Eric Heywood on pedal steel, Bonebrake himself on vibes (pictured right), and Bruce Good, patriarch of the Good clan, on autoharp. Doe’s voice, as usual, is excellent.
If Country Club has one outstanding flaw, it’s that it’s a bit too safe. Take away two ballads — my vote being “Husbands And Wives” (see below) and “A Fool Such As I” — and replace them with “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail” and Billy Joe Shaver‘s “Black Rose” and the album would be damn near perfect. I’m also not sure if the Brothers Good even sing backup. I could be going deaf, but I don’t think I hear them. The band gets a couple brief instrumentals, but they couldn’t be indulged for one lead and some backup vox? Country Club is a good album, but could’ve been great had it trusted The Sadies a little more. Doe and The Sadies are actually embarking on a short tour and my guess is that woodshedding these songs and introducing some honkier, tonkier material into the set will breathe more life into the affair.
Rather than farting my way through an album review, I’m using one of my favorite songs from the album as a jumping off point to explore the country roots of both John Doe and The Sadies. If you like this, you’ll probably wanna buy Country Club, as well as 1-2 back catalog items from both acts. You don’t hate Americanadia, do you???
“While we haven’t reinvented the wheel, we have created a cohesiveness between several hit country & western singles and our own styles.”
“It Just Dawned On Me” is the perfect summation of this stylistic cohesion. Great vocals, great picking, solid production, it’s amazing when country music sounds like country music. It was written by Exene Cervenka and John Doe and features Kathleen Edwards on vocal harmonies so eerily reminiscent of Cervenka, I’m pretty sure she owns an Exene voodoo doll. Just sayin’. On top of that formidable foundation are The Sadies and their turbo stringbending, slinky groove jockeying, and perfectly formed pocket of Goodness. While the song as written blends X’s basic sound with early ’60s Nashville (“His Latest Flame” by Elvis maybe?), The Sadies –and Dallas’ guitar work, in particular — hold their own with audacious Clarence White-era Byrds flavor. In fact, “Time Between” from Younger Than Yesterday could be another template for “Dawned.”
The Knitters‘ 1985 debut, Poor Little Critter On The Road, was much better in theory than execution. It’s cool that in the mid-’80s, 3/4 of X and Dave Alvin of The Blasters (and X) collaborated on an album of old-school roots music, but the results should’ve been better given the principals involved. To be fair, X and The Blasters were constantly on the road, so they didn’t have time to give Critter its propers. However, after 20 years of touring and a genuine feel for americana, The Knitters, like their constituent outfits, evolved into a kickass aggregation of road-tested badasses.
“Try Anymore” is a barnstomping tale of marital woe written by Doe. I like how the washtub bass (either usual bassist Jonny Ray Bartel or DJ Bonebrake) drives the band forward while Dave Alvin’s steel licks pull them back. That musical tension is mirrored vocally through the patented twang ‘n’ howl of John ‘n’ Exene. “Neither of us seem to have the tiiiiiiime!” Like scratching a favorite itch.
“Bakersfield vs. Nashville was never a dispute … Bakersfield!”
–John Doe on the Doe/Sadies mindset
This Merle Haggard cover was a revelation in 1994. I was a big fan of X and knew Doe liked country music, but hadn’t heard the evidence. I failed to see X in their prime, Poor Little Critter was long out-of-print and impossible to find, and it wasn’t like X bootlegs were readily available. Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard changed all that. The album mostly veers between good and great and Doe’s version of “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line” is definitely a highlight. Smokey Hormel‘s steel lines are a perfect foil for Doe’s velvety croon.
FYI, Doe revisits the Hag catalog on Country Club, taking “Are The Good Times Really Over For Good?” out for a spin. Actually, The Sadies do most of the spinning, as they get the song hopped up on speedballs and take advantage of it in the backseat. Doe wisely plays it straight, letting the band shine for 2:40 of no bullshit country music, especially Dallas on guitar shred and Belitsky on rave-up drums.
“The songwriters in Nashville would follow him around and pick up his droppings because everything he said was a potential song. He spoke in songs.”
—Buddy Killen on Roger Miller
I’ll say it now, Roger Miller (pictured right, singing) is the most underrated country artist of all-time. From roughly 1957-67, his songwriting featured the most sublime combination of intelligence, wit, poignancy, ridiculosity, and flat-out anarchy in country music history. Start listing songwriters with a better 10-year stretch and you’re gonna have yourself a short list. Few country performers have a better 3-year peak than Miller, whose work from early 1964 to early 1967 is damn near flawless and worth millions. He was a spectacular vocalist and performer, fully inhabiting the pain of Hank Williams one moment (“The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me”) and scatting like a slapstick Ella Fitzgerald the next (“Dang Me”). He could play guitar, fiddle, and drums. He was funnier than a sack full of yo mama jokes. And he’s underrated because for many country music fans he’s essentially a novelty act.
A novelty act can produce “Do-Wacka-Do,” not “Husbands And Wives,” the second track on Country Club. While Doe probably has the purer voice and does a good job singing it, even he can’t compete with Roger’s effortless, jazz-influenced vocalistics. Like his old friend and drinking buddy, Willie Nelson (also pictured above, playing guitar), Miller was perfectly comfortable phrasing off-the-beat and he obviously wrote this song with his unique voice in mind. The real difference-maker, though, is the original arrangement, an uncluttered affair meant to highlight Miller’s vocal and lyrics. There’s a brief mandolin solo and Pig Robbins’ dramatic, yet understated ivory-tinkling, otherwise the band smartly lays back. “Husbands” is one of Country Club‘s rare missteps because there’s too much going on, including an awkward 12-string guitar part and superfluous vibes. What can you do? Sometimes you invent a square wheel. Still, it gave me an excuse to pimp the great Roger Miller, so consider it a lose-win. Incidentally, anyone else think Charlie Rich would’ve done a killer version of this tune?
“Home” went to #2 for Jim Reeves in 1959, but this version from In Concert Volume One is clearly based on the 1966 re-recording by the song’s writer, Roger Miller. In Concert actually has a pair of obscurities from the early Miller catalog, the other being “Jason Fleming,” which Miller himself cut in 1959. Oh circle, you can’t stay broken for long.
A nostalgic reverie, “Home” hears Neko in great voice (I know, weird), Kelly Hogan provides perfect close harmony, Dallas (pictured left) tears up the B-Bender, and, oh by the way, that’s Garth Hudson of The Band on piano. GARTH MF’IN HUDSON!!! I love the very brief exchange between Hudson and upright bassist, Sean Dean, from :33-:36. Cower in awe, mere mortals.
One of The Sadies’ first straight-up country originals — written with Unintended homeboy, Rick White — this is about as close as you can get to The Band without owing royalties. Hell, you can almost hear Rick Danko‘s keening wail, with Levon Helm guiding him home on rustic harmony. The connection makes perfect sense considering that both bands are filled with Canadians in love with American roots music.
“Within A Stone” features great harmonizing by the Good boys and I love the dobro part, though I suppose that could be a Nashville guitar. If there was a point where The Sadies put themselves on a collision course with Country Club, this track from Stories Often Told (pictured above) may have been it. Big props for the Night Of The Hunter reference (“It’s a hard world for little things.”)
What’s that? You need another Clarence White-style fix? Oh OK, twist my arm.
STOP THE TOUR AND LET ME ON
Beginning on April 29, John Doe and The Sadies will be playing a handful of record release dates in southern Ontario, the Atlantic seaboard, and the upper midwest. So, you lucky bastards living near Toronto, New York, and Detroit have no excuses. I’m officially jealous starting … now. Get yer country clubbin’ on.