Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are NOT the only musicians saving country music.
Sure, they dabble in the classic ideals of the era – outlaws abound in the lyrics – and songs of broken families, lost love, boozing, drugging, and everyday strife far outweigh songs about parties and trucks, but they’re not the sole proprietors and torch-bearers of the golden age of country music. Like all genres, there’s an independent circuit, chock full of bands far removed from the bro-country that gives the overall scene of country music a bad name. Here you’ll find no high fives, no soundtracks to “Party Down South,” no country music dipshittery. Whitey Morgan, J.P. Harris, and Western Centuries are a few that fly the true-country flag, with the latter of the aforementioned pulling into town this weekend for the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown.
Western Centuries’ sets are Saturday night at the Durango Arts Center, and Sunday at the Henry Strater Theatre.
Western Centuries is a band with an all-star cast of players and songwriters. Many bands may feature the songwriting and vocal talents of just one member, and that person acts as leader of the outfit. In Western Centuries, you have three songwriters: Ethan Lawton, Jim Miller, and Cahalen Morrison, all of whom contribute songs and share vocal duties while swapping instruments. In a band with multiple songwriting personalities, one may assume friction rears its ugly head. Yet here, there’s little need for disciplined exercises of diplomatic talents.
“We all like each other a lot, and respect each other a lot, and we like each other’s music, so we’re all kind of excited when another person brings in a new song,” said Morrison. “They’re all pretty different, so it’s fun to just have stuff that you wouldn’t have come up with to be creative with something that’s out of your wheelhouse.”
It’s Morrison’s second time at the Meltdown – the first was back in 2012 when he performed with Eli West. The band and event organizers are bending and breaking the traditional Meltdown rules of no drums, even though Western Centuries do the acoustic, bluegrass-heavy thing just as well as they do pedal-steel heavy. They have the ability to appease traditional and modern bluegrass fans while taking on the sounds of straight-ahead traditional country.
“I grew up in New Mexico, playing country music and New Mexican dance music, so I’ve been playing in loud bands since 7th grade,” said Morrison. “But the thing about our band, Ethan is a great mandolin player, Jim is a great acoustic guitar player and banjo player, our bass player is a phenomenal fiddle player, so we all have roots in old time and bluegrass and folk music, so we play a lot of that, too. So we get our kicks.”
The music is timeless twang, where you’ll find road-worn weary and personal warmth in all of the songs. Be it shuffles, waltzes, or country rockers, all three singers have voices that ache despair and promise, while somehow remaining casual and inviting. Beneath the vocals is a band that drips with pedal steel and country at the heart, while also looking backward to explore multiple musical landscapes. It’s lyrically intelligent and musically swinging. The sawdust-covered dance floor is open, and the sound is just as much country as it is roots-rock and cosmic American music.
“I think the two big things that we share are Ralph Stanley and The Band. It’s somewhere in between those two, which is a long way, I realize,” said Morrison. “But it’s all based on songs and based on singing, and less on any sort of virtuosic breaks on instruments. So we like to play the song how the song should be played. Whether or not we get there, I don’t know, but we’re trying.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]