The music world will never have enough murder ballads and historical tales of woe. There are plenty of droning songwriters armed with a guitar and an opinion that over and over have written the equivalent of a watered-down drink. That’s fine if you like a weak drink, but for many, including this critic, a weak drink is lighthearted fluff. Yawn.
Enough with the Jack Johnson, 5 Seconds of Summer and a Kenny G. solo. Enough with Americana that spurs a happy dance. It’s important to dig deep into Americana both new and old to find some dark substance.
The Townes Van Zandts and John Prines of the world all have some feelings and stories to convey. More contemporary acts like The Handsome Family or Slim Cessna are like Edgar Allen Poe put to song. There are loads of great artists of the “No Depression” magazine era exploring murder, revenge, sadness and sorrow via their lyrics, including The Great Contention, a Durango quartet playing Saturday at El Rancho with old-time band Six Dollar String Band.
The Great Contention came together last summer. Guitar player and singer Joshua Standard met fiddle player and singer Sunny Gable while both were playing in other bands; it was a perfect match ripe for future musical pursuit, something they both realized from the beginning. The pairing of their voices, a striking, instantly noticeable match that’s beautifully subtle, gave way to quick realization that they should make music together.
“We met when we both walked into practice. We played a couple of songs together and this light bulb went off,” Standard said in a recent interview. “We said ‘alright, we got to start something.’”
They then added bass player Guy Ewing, followed by dobro player Jeff Moorehead, who asked to sit in at a show in New Mexico.
It’s not bluegrass. It’s not folk. It lies somewhere in between: a gritty and aggressive marriage of the two with influences of acoustic blues and alternative country. There is no fluff, and it’s not even lyrically “happy,” as both Gable and Standard have an affinity to listen to and write darker songs. There’s beauty in these dark tales of jilted lovers and drunken revenge, men who have had their hearts ripped out and stomped on by an ex, or miners off to work in the ground day after day, year after year and coming up penniless. It’s real. There are enough songs in the world that celebrate the obvious beauty of mountains and rivers, especially in genres that have been ruined by the jam-band scene and crowd. Leave it to punk, cow-punk, burly folk, old-time and bluegrass to provide lyrics dealing with gothic tales of American history. These are all necessary doses of reality.
“These are songs about life. Not everything’s great all the time,” Standard said. “It’s easier to make you feel something with a sad song.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected].