By Elmer Ploetz
There’s something to be said for geographic specificity in music.
Even 60 or 70 years ago, there was a lot of regional music around the country. Most of your bluegrass was coming from Virginia and Kentucky. Conjunto came from Texas. Blues came from musicians coming from the South.
Most country music was Southern, but not all of it. There has always been a branch of northern hillbillies who heard the sounds of the Grand Ol’ Opry and the WLS Barn Dance through the AM radio waves (and to be fair, a good many northern city dwellers caught on too). Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and a ton of others caught the fever in California, too.
My dad thought of himself as one of those northern hillbillies. Growing up in Cattaraugus County, he listened to the Carter Family on the radio when they were hitmakers of the day and went trapping and coon hunting both for fun and to make ends meet during the depression (and, for what it’s worth, the phrase “coon hunting” has no racial connotations; it was just what country folk called the pursuit of the raccoon, traditionally done at night with black-and-tan hounds). One of my dad’s uncles was known around the area for singing and strumming in the local beer joints (I never heard my father call them taverns; they were beer joints).
These days I don’t get much of a feeling of place when I listen to most commercial country music radio. It seems like it could be coming from just about any suburb, with the singer run through the Nashville hitmaking mill. It just doesn’t feel … real.
Which brings us to one of the things that I like about Uncle Ben’s Remedy’s new album, “Easy Ways to Here.” It’s well-played and produced with some great songs. But, at least to these ears, it’s music from a place … the northwestern edge of Cattaraugus County to be specific.
Listening to “Easy Ways to Here,” I hear echoes of the places and times I grew up in. The gravel pits that served as fishing holes for bass and bullhead and as teenage drinking venues. The “Knee High by the Fourth of July” farmer’s axiom that gets a bit of a twist from UBR. Guys working at jobs with “names on their shirts.” The phrases in the lyrics just seem familiar.
It’s something to savor. You don’t hear it often on country radio, but think back to songs like Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield” (which I just found out was written by a guy named Homer Joy, another Bakersfield Sound guy) or, for that matter, Kinky Friedman’s “Nashville Casualty and Life.” Levon Helm’s songs never left his part of the South even when he was in Canada or Woodstock. I’m sure you can think of your own examples.
So hopefully the world will recognize “Easy Ways to Here” as a collection of great songs recorded really well at GCR and Tarbox Road Studios. There’s a mix of sincerity and humor (think of Hank 3 with a little restraint and without that damned irritating voice) that makes for a really enjoyable listen. There’s a touch of raunch — it wouldn’t be Uncle Ben’s Remedy without it.
But for UBR, it’s an album that represents them — and us — well.