Make no mistake this is a country album, a no-nonsense, old fashioned honest to god working-man’s country record. And it’s as fine a one as you will hear this year: if not next year as well, and last year for that matter. It doesn’t flirt with other genres, it’s the sort of record about which people say things like (genuine but misappropriated quotes alert) “This is real country and this is what we’ve been yearning for” or Craig Gerdes has “saved us from Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and all the other sh*tty pop country garbage” or “At last, this young man is true country” or “why oh why don’t they make country like this anymore”. Or… whatever.
Thing is, in truth, they do make records like this, lots of ‘em, every week it seems. You just need to keep your eyes and ears open, oh and don’t forget to check out AUK on a regular basis! A few of these may be familiar to you – remember the bounce we got hearing Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, Chris Stapelton, John Moreland, Wheeler Walker, Whitey Morgan, Colter Wall….. for the first time? We might have lost the odd one of these to desperately dull fretwinking electronic Southern krautrock pastiche along the way but we can add Craig Gerdes to this list; somewhere near the very top if it’s being graded. This record is as good as anything that anyone on it produced at the start of their careers.
I know, that list is full of men, ferociously bearded men at that, but this is manly music. To be clear here that is not an observation made with any preconceptions of who might (or should) make music of this, or any, kind – we love Jesse Colter, Beth Bombara, Stacey Collins, Lydia Loveless, Nikki Lane, Amy McCarley and the rest perfectly fine. This is most definitely not music only for men but ‘Tough as Nails’ reeks of testosterone and there is very little, if any, femininity present in the songs or the production. When women do make a rare appearance (‘Tonight’s not the Night’ or ‘That Little Girl’) it is as the object of a man’s gaze and in the tropes of “fast-talking women” in “smoky bars” or “somebody else’s wife” who the narrator ends up falling for.
So whilst other writers might attempt to represent the thoughts or feelings of their female protagonists (cf: Robbie Fulks or BR549 for example) Gerdes’ position is always ‘this is how I feel or think about her’. Whilst this could at first seem problematic, it actually is not. It is simply an authentic position to take in these songs, one that matches the personal nature of the rest of the record.
This authenticity gives the record a real immediacy; you don’t have to work hard to find your way into it. That it does not pall after multiple listens is a tribute to the depth and quality of the songwriting. It may at first seem simplistic, full of the truisms of outlaw country – with songs about hard times (‘Most Times I Lost’ and ‘Tough as Nails’), being on the road (‘If Guitars Were Guns’, ‘Between the Cradle and the Grave’ and ‘Only the Road Knows’) or hard times on the road (‘Hard Times’ and ‘Highwayman’) with a couple of real barroom ballads thrown in for good measure. However listen more closely and what emerges is Gerdes as a thoughtful and honest chronicler of the struggles of the regular urban, blue-collar working-man’s life.
He recounts these labours from a personal perspective in a way that seems like first-hand experience but we can still sense the universal struggle they capture. He’s not telling us about anything we haven’t heard about many times before but his perspective is passionate and renews our interest in the lives of the people he is chronicling.
As often happens when an artist makes a pure ‘come as you are’ country LP, ‘Tough as Nails’ has been characterised variously as honky-tonk, hillbilly even Appalachian, nonsense. It might have red-dirt roots but they are urban, small town, factory-made and diesel stained, it doesn’t swing (except perhaps a big right-hand haymaker) and it rocks harder than ACDC. Check the riff in ‘Most Times I Lost’; if that isn’t a direct descendent of ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (if you wanna rock n roll)’ then Gerdes didn’t make this record with his honed and toned road band who were raised on hard rock and southern boogie (he did and they were).
A glorious start to a musical career from Craig Gerdes then; two records in and he is making music that stands shoulder to shoulder with any of his peers, true outlaw country of the purest hue. The question is then does he keep this up or will he change, searching for some kind of irrelevant ‘serious artistic credibility’ or spurious hipster cool? Or perhaps he may tone things down in search of a wider audience like many who have walked this way before. Perhaps though, he will remain grounded in his Illinois country roots. This record is so damned authentic, so direct and unaffected a representation of his experience that it is hard to see him straying from the path. We can only pray to the ghosts of outlaws past that he doesn’t and that we get more of this fantastic music.