More than any other genre, country music has the uncanny ability to make rural geography seem as inescapable as it is insufferable. Anyone who grew up bored in the boonies can testify that — despite all the wide-open spaces — there’s something terrifyingly claustrophobic in knowing that, even barreling down the interstate at 90 mph, it’ll take a good two hours before reaching a town with a five-digit population. And with the car’s dial tuned to C&W’s hopeless and helpless narratives, those two hours can feel like nothing more than merely the precursor to the inevitable return to rustic isolation.
So although it’s a rare country crooner who ain’t holding out for something bigger and better, most of ‘em temper optimism with a lifetime of hard-fought failures. The four honky-tonkers in Kansas’s Split Lip Rayfield know the drill all too well. After opening Never Make It Home, the band’s third album of bluegrass ’n’ hillbilly boogies, with the forward-looking and trailblazing “Movin’ to Virginia,” the group follows it up with a road-worn warning that “You will soon discover that the road ain’t as easy as it seems.” It’s a sad reminder found throughout the album. On these 14 fantastic tracks of comin’ and goin’ and comin’ back again, there’s little but dead-end lives in dead-end towns. What’s so impressive is that the music never sounds desperate so much as desperately alive.
More traditionally country than its Kansas-based label mates, Canada’s Sadies live the same hard-knock lives and die the same everyday deaths as Split Lip Rayfield. The Steve Albini-recorded Tremendous Efforts is stop, drop, rock ’n’ roll for rodeo clowns raised on Nick Cave and Conway Twitty. The best moments, however, are in the more somber, dusty-trailed tales of wanting to flee what can’t be fled. “You said that you would like to take a road trip/Well, that is something I would do with you,” the band sings before resigning to the inevitable: “Instead, I’ll drown off the coast of Massachusetts.” We can’t always get what we want, but what happens when all you want is to escape your ill-fated life?
Never Make It Home and Tremendous Efforts both grapple with that very dilemma. And while Split Lip Rayfield and the Sadies can’t provide the answer — can anyone? — their music is more than capable of offering an escape when the day-to-day comes closing in.
E-mail Jimmy Draper at firstname.lastname@example.org.