27 July, Sitting Room Session By Jess Soutar Barron
There’s a rich seam of country music running through the cultural geology of New Zealand. We mine it; it bursts to the surface; in our deep South we source the mother lode. It’s familiar even though it’s foreign. It’s ours because we stole it – (possession being 9/10th of the law). Then two good ole country boys in skin tight Wranglers, bolo ties, beaver skin hats turn up from California and remind us what the real deal sounds like.
Kevin Carducci plays a mean double bass, close your eyes and you can hear a washtub bass paired with a mellifluous voice that’s all plaid flannel and Irish coffee. Sage Fifield is on guitar, echoing a washboard, a harmonica around his neck through which he channels a train, a highway, a desert zephyr. Together they are The Easy Leaves. Their music is folk, story-telling, old-time, every-man road poetry, rattling with nostalgia, but somehow topical with themes of highways, neon signs, deforestation and water rights set alongside classic motifs of home, lost love and hard drinking.
Country – with its cousin Western – has been segregated and siloed since the 70s into a niche genre. There’s been a resurgence dressed up with a new name: Americana, and that’s seen new fans (I, for one, am in love with Pokey LaFarge), but country and western gets the side-eye. It’s either “too old” or too much of a “piss-take”.
The Easy Leaves don’t shy away from either of those misnomers. With lyrics like “too much gin did my Grandma in” we are allowed a laugh at the cliché hill billy family, but the songsters are laughing too. The performance has elements of pastiche set alongside homage. Throughout though there is humble reverence for a nostalgia born from a collective memory far older than either of them. It’s self-referential and self-aware but with a light touch. We are not weighed down by that nostalgia, warmth is the only residue.
Lyrics are pertinent and drip meaning. “I’ve never had much but I’ve had enough to go from place to place” is such a perfect descriptor of this travelling duo. Their observation of the changing face of their home state is captured in “Those old cowboys have turned to highway men”. And there’s a smooth, easy, opinionated tone to “Coming home, counting the money”.
There’s beautiful harmonies playing here with two voices so perfectly matched they become one. At the same time, the twang of discordance that resonates in Country brings forth an organic, natural timbre. Here is the antidote to produced, manufactured music. It’s ever-so-slightly off, and because of that it’s truly and terrifically human.
The booming heart-wrench of “Angeline” brings the heat that happens in the liminal space between melody and harmony. “Purgatory” is catchy and we all sing along.
There is a layer here that speaks to cultural loss. Heart-land cities suffering economic devastation, wide-open spaces lost to urbanisation. And with the change in social landscape a diminishing of lifestyle, traditions, language and music. Holding on to country music is as bona fide cultural conservation as the retention of any threatened community’s ways of being.
The Topp Twins and Arlo Guthrie were mainstays of my childhood sound track. It’s at that point The Easy Leaves and I meet on the evolutionary tree. I can hear ‘Untouchable Girls’ in the music these men deliver, I can hear ‘The Motorcycle Song’. Isn’t music the great connector, across cultures, and a great reminder of our similarities rather than our differences?