Interstate Cowboy,
There's a Road
(Ranch Ruckus, 2007)

Though the second of Interstate Cowboy's releases, There's a Road is the first to pass my way. I hadn't heard of the band until a review copy showed up in my mail not long ago. As I scrutinized the cover, I expected either a straight-ahead Western swing outfit or -- in the fashion of some Texas groups -- a guitar-rock band showcasing gimmicky Western imagery. As I learned soon enough, not exactly.

It turns out the five-man Interstate Cowboy's sound synthesizes popular and vernacular styles, incorporating or integrating rock, reggae, folk, jazz, swing and classic pop at various points. Ordinarily, when I hear somebody speak of "country-western music," I deduce he or she isn't much attuned to country music and thus knows no better than to tag it with a name long discarded by fans and musicians. This, however, might properly be called country-western since Western imagery is integral to many of the songs, the nine originals composed by presumptive band-leader Tim Champlin. On the other hand, the problem in this instance might be the "country" part of the equation. Much of this album doesn't sound country at all, though mainstream country radio would surely be a whole lot more endurable if it elected to air Interstate Cowboy music. Fat chance, sadly.

Based in Fort Collins, Colorado, the band boasts an impressive lineup that consists of guitarist/mandolinist Grant Gordy (sometime David Grisman stagemate), upright-bassist Gene Libbea (formerly of the Nashville Bluegrass Band) and steel guitarist Dick Meis (who's played in the bands of Roger Miller, Loretta Lynn and other Nashville notables). Drummer Oscar Dezoto brings an assured light touch to the job.

Champlin, a guitar player who sings in an easy-on-the-ears tenor, carries with him an assortment of tuneful, instantly charming originals. They're so good that it's hard to pick out favorites. It's not just those wonderful poppy melodies, either. Champlin tells interesting stories, nearly always from an unexpected point of view, and peppers them with quirky insights. If a Nashville hack could only produce dreck under the title "The American Way," Champlin compresses a whole short story into a wry few verses (sung with guest vocalist Mary Buirgy) about a young couple who contemplate marriage while entertaining conflicting romantic -- almost certainly irreconcilable -- illusions about each other. The tune sprints along so cheerfully, though, you'll have to listen to the words to figure out that disaster and heartache may be impending.

Curiously, as There's a Road progresses, it moves inexorably into jazz, with splendidly arranged covers of standards such as "Frankie & Johnny," "Old Cowhand," "Lady Be Good" and "Take the A Train." Here we enter small-band Western-swing territory and leave this particular listener wanting more. Not, let us be clear, that anything that's preceded it has been less than blissful. Whatever these guys are doing -- ultimately, putting together found music in a way that's idiosyncratically their own and making it almost ridiculously accessible -- I will be a happy listener indeed if they keep doing it.

review by
Jerome Clark

26 April 2008

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