“You can’t slap a little electric fiddle on the top of your pop and call it country,” Cindy Wolfe complained in a recent phone interview from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Technically, she’s wrong — Shania Twain does it every day. But the Tennessee Twin singer-songwriter and twin sis of Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe is voicing the same gripe that many music lovers have with today’s too-stylized/sterilized new country: It’s all glitz ’n’ glitter, no heart ’n’ hurt.
It’s refreshing, then, to hear Wolfe’s band — an eight-person ensemble including members of the New Pornographers and I Mudder Accordion — play yes-Depression, no-pretension numbers for Dolly and Loretta lovers. Free To Do What?, the band’s first no-frills LP of old-Nashville nostalgia, is a charming, hoedown-on-the-farm slice of life that manages to evoke eras past without sounding like a hokey parody or rip-off. Throughout a dozen mandolin-, fiddle- and accordion-laden narratives about gone-wrong guys and romantic disillusionment, Wolfe turns typical tear-in-your-beer banalities into some truly moving moments by refusing, unlike so many in today’s crop of alt-country crap, to romanticize the pain.
Which is exactly why the Tennessee Twin succeeds while so many of its contemporaries fail: Wolfe doesn’t reduce old country to a self-pity party on the front porch and doesn’t use the genre to simply authenticate her despair. So when, with her endearingly nasal twang on “Big Emo Eyes,” Wolfe sings, “Misery might be love, but it’s something I’ll never be sure of,” she’s not taking comfort in being sad — she’s holding out hope through the hurt, giving herself a reason to believe and capturing exactly why so much music from that era still resonates today.
So, sure, the Twin and the Twain will never go tête-a-tête on today’s homogenized country radio. That’s OK, though, ’cause for fans of old-fashioned Americana, Free To Do What? is the stuff true country is made of.
E-mail Jimmy Draper at firstname.lastname@example.org.