Laidback, cool, West Coast country from a new Gram and Emmylou.
It’s strange how a pedal steel can evoke thoughts of either a deep south dive bar full of rednecks or a trippy night at San Francisco’s Filmore in 1967. On ‘Tobacco City, USA’ Nick Usalis’ pedal steel is definitely reaching for the West Coast and channelling Lloyd Green or Al Perkins.
When Gram Parsons appeared in a Nudie suit decorated with marijuana leaves on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ a very different version of country music took shape emerging from the psychedelic ‘flower power’ generation rather than from their blue collar working-class parents. It is in this version of ‘cosmic country’ that Tobacco City have found their influences.
A slightly trite comparison, but an apt one, Tobacco City’s Lexi Goddard and the fantastically named Chris Coleslaw are very much a twenty-first century Emmylou and Gram. Their effortless harmonies, and laid back ease of delivery, could quite easily be outtakes from ‘Grievous Angel’.
The key issue is whether ‘Tobacco City, USA’ rises above pastiche and creates something original and engaging. If we look at the evidence then the album proceeds at a pace which could definitely be characterised as laid back, the album cover is a pretty trippy image of fruits, mushrooms and a snail and one of the tracks is called ‘LSD’ so they clearly wouldn’t argue about the roots of their sound. Their songs, however, are lyrically interesting ‘LSD’ includes some pretty arresting lyrics like “I love you like a dog loves a dead bird and feels like TV from another room” and ‘AA Blues’ explores the life of a reformed alcoholic who knows they can’t drink but is missing the things they used to do.
Tobacco City hail from Chicago, which is probably better known over the last twenty years for a more muscular ‘insurgent’ approach to country music than Tobacco City take. Is this the time for a resurgence of the cosmic cool country music? If it is then Tobacco City will be right there at the forefront, leading the charge, playing the slightly off-kilter ‘Neon Lights’ and showing that respect for country traditions can be mixed with a distinctly urban ethic.
So, ‘Tobacco City, USA’ is definitely more than mere pastiche. In fact, this is a great album reviving respectfully a genre that seemed as though it might have expired on the pyre in the Joshua Tree National Monument.