Revamped lineup, same results
Country music in America has long been a well-oiled machine. Since the earliest days, it’s taken on many forms, from folksy bluegrass to bar-room friendly honky-tonk and rockabilly. But from 1950 onward it’s been a multibillion-dollar industry centered in Nashville, in which artists and producers alike were churned out as if on an assembly line.
In the early 1970s, a sort of hipster movement began to challenge the country status quo. Out in Texas and Nashville, ex-pats such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings began to develop new sounds and images based on the local scenes. The new music was devoid of polish, full of taboo subjects forbidden by the machine and came with a less commercialized aesthetic. The result was a genre called “outlaw country,” and it gained an impressive amount of momentum. Legendary singer Johnny Cash, who was thrown out by the machine for his haggard appearance, criminal record and struggles with substance abuse, experienced a career revival within the outlaw movement.
The machine quickly wrestled back control in the early ’80s, as outlaw declined in mainstream popularity. Nowadays, a couple of artists such as Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves have mixed outlaw back into the otherwise pop-oriented Nashville sound, but no artist truly adopted it fully. That is until Brent Amaker came along.
A native Oklahoman, Amaker grew up loving outlaw country, and in early 2005 formed a band called Brent Amaker and the Rodeo to honor it. Amaker, with his deep Johnny Cash-style vocal delivery and cowboy aesthetic, was a perfect fit for such a band. The Rodeo wound up being a far more eclectic project than expected, as later releases heavily dove into electronic influences, so much so to the point the band covered a song by legendary German electro pioneers Kraftwerk. Now, though, Amaker has partnered with an all-female backing band known as the DeathSquad to release a new album, Hello, that takes his sound back to the outlaw basics.
The opener and title track (“Hello”) has all the necessary outlaw ingredients: basic instrumentation, folksy acoustic guitars and Amaker’s gravelly speak-singing. “Man In Charge” an updated version of a former Rodeo track, adds reverb-y electric guitar, strings and female-lead vocals to the party. The best song, however, is the non-original: the penultimate track is a cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” The DeathSquad version (obviously) adds a bit more country attitude, and the call-and-response between Amaker and bassist Darci Carlson is a nice touch.
As a whole, an artist who’s dedicated a career to keeping outlaw alive has done so again with Hello. There are moments where it can get a bit too cheesy, but Amaker’s devoted cult following won’t mind at all.