Todd Grebe & Cold Country,
(independent, 2015)

Usually, my initial exposure to a newly arrived CD is as background sound, which explains why my first impressions so often turn out to be misleading. As Citizen played in the background while I attended to other business, I recall thinking something like, "They don't make country music like that anymore." That impression turned about to be only partially correct. If it had stopped at "that," it would have been accurate. In point of fact, nobody has ever made country music like this.

What inattentive listening led me to think of as modestly engaging honkytonk revivalism proved on focused hearing to be more akin to John Prine, who is not a country singer by any ordinarily understood definition, than to Hank Williams. Based in Anchorage, Todd Grebe & Cold Country only assume the appearance of a blue-collar hillbilly bar band. In that regard acoustic guitar, Telecaster, fiddle, pedal steel, keyboards, percussion and bass find an appealing groove, most of which you can dance to as you guzzle beer (though I hope a better variety than the bottle of swill Grebe is clutching in the cover photo).

Even so, the melodies aren't quite the continually recycled ones -- not a criticism; I wouldn't be a lifelong country geek if I objected to such musical conservation -- but distinctive, creatively conceived ones. And lyric-wise, you're hearing an approach that brings to mind a countrified version of Prine. The title song visits the sort of mopish, hapless but likable character Prine has had endless fun with practically from the day he started writing songs to -- dare one wonder? -- the day he stopped; Prine has not released an album of original material in a decade, which amounts to a century in music-industry time. I don't know how conscious Grebe, composer of 10 of the dozen cuts, is of his debt to Prine, but once you catch it, it is ever after unmissable.

Underscoring that point is the presence of Travis Zuber's "Brown Hair," which doesn't sound at all like a Prine creation. It's a terrific song, awash in wandering, wistful memory and elusive meaning, an irresistible and compellingly tuneful country-folk ballad. Most of the other songs radiate a wry humor that, if not quite as off the wall as Prine's, looks over the territory. Prine could easily have written something titled "Let's Make Love for Christmas" or "Luckiest Man Here on Earth." "Criminal Style" brilliantly parodies a certain genre of dim-witted country and pop song, in which the singer boasts to his true love of the lengths he will go to prove his devotion. In this case the guy is willing to transform himself into a menace to society. Yes, you can imagine Prine's conjuring up the same.

Being inspired by somebody, however, is natural and normal in any art form, including popular song. The influences of, for example, the Beatles and Bob Dylan are so ubiquitous that nobody even remarks on, or even particularly notices, them anymore. What matters is what the acolyte does with that influence, and Grebe and his band do happy things with it. There is not a clunker within hearing distance. The arrangements are lively, the melodies sparkle, and all concerned -- including, almost certainly, you the listener -- are having a grand old time.

If Prine's long silence possibly means he's given up writing songs, the day may come when we're all listening to Todd Grebe & Cold Country instead. On the other hand, I hope that's not what it takes. You don't have to choose. You can listen happily to Prine and Grebe, and indeed you should. Citizen may come out of cold country, but it's afire.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 August 2015

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