Ryan Koenig,
Two Different Worlds
(Big Muddy, 2017)

Is there anything worse -- at least in the realm of music -- than contemporary country? For those of you who have pondered the matter and happen to be reading these words, that will be a rhetorical question, requiring not even an "of course not" by way of answer. And just when you thought no more formula and pabulum could be thrown into the mix, it gets more inedible. Any country music of any worth counted any way but commercially lingers on the margins, where blues, folk, jazz, bluegrass and other genres struggle to hold on in the face of hostile corporate onslaught.

A resident of St. Louis and a member of Pokey LaFarge's band, guitarist Ryan Koenig is deeply versed in hard-core hillbilly sounds. That's obvious from a single listening to Two Different Worlds, which is dipped in tradition without being suffocated by it. Put it this way: it's not hard to discern where Koenig comes from. What is surprising that he doesn't sound like anybody from there in particular. In other words, in full command of its history and nuance, he possesses the confidence to shape tradition on his own terms. In so doing, he reminds you not only why you once liked country music but how meaningful country is still possible.

One immediate distinction is that the electric guitar is amped up to a slightly more than usual level on some cuts, yet without ever turning the music into rock. Country it is, and it never strays therefrom. If Koenig sings -- convincingly, I might add -- like a honky-tonker from the golden era, his songs, while too manifestly organic to feel like mutant hybrids, play out easily in the 21st century, not in some resurrected mid-century age of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and the Bakersfield Sound. On one side the arrangements feel familiar; on another, the words are telling stories that, if familiar, still seem fresh and true.

I also like Koenig's way with Tex-Mex material, in songs such as "Puebla, Mexico" and "Podemos Si Te Quieres," propelled by Mary Ann Schulte's conjunto accordion's lilt and drone. (Actually, Jerry Lee Lewis in his prime would have done a [literal] bang-up job on "Puebla.") If there is an overarching theme among these appealing numbers, all but one original, it's the sense of dislocation. The singer always seems to be some place he wishes he weren't while he's dreaming of somewhere else.

Well, any place, musically speaking, is better than Nashville these days. From the evidence of the other planet documented in Two Different Worlds, St. Louis might be worth the travel through space. Apparently, they know how to make country songs there.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 October 2017

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