Backsliders – Fallen angels with grizzled faces
Wherever you are, you’ll probably get a chance to see the Backsliders sometime this year when they hit the road behind the album (Jason & the Scorchers, Wilco and even Mammoth labelmates the Squirrel Nut Zippers have been mentioned as possible touring partners). Hopes are high for the album, which was produced with a minimum of fuss by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson.
Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon is as expert and elegantly simple as the live EP. From the first note of the driving shuffle My Baby’s Gone, the songs, the playing and Robinson’s voice all intersect perfectly. Each element enhances the other without getting in the way, building on the lock-solid rhythms of drummer Jeff Dennis and bassist Danny Kurtz. While Robinson is better-known for his singing, his warm acoustic strumming adds texture to the exceptional electric-guitar tandem of Rice and Howell. Rice typically plays loud and Howell pretty, but each does a lot of both, and it fits together seamlessly.
Anderson’s production is simple and no-frills, as it should be. The Backsliders are nothing if not professional, and this ain’t the sort of project where anybody needed to fog up the synthesizers. Getting Anderson to produce the album was a lucky break, one the band didn’t think they’d get. While they were negotiating terms with Mammoth, the label told the Backsliders to come up with a list of “dream producers.”
“Pete was probably the most longshot name on our list, but we figured, what the hell,” Robinson said. “We hadn’t even signed the deal yet and Pete was on the phone the day he got the tape in the mail: ‘C’mon, man, I want you guys out here tomorrow! Let’s make a record!’ He was a great guy, real laid-back, didn’t mess with anything too much. He basically tightened up the rhythm section, and let Brad and Steve do what they do.
“As far as arrangements, we had them really together. We’ve been playing these songs a long time — and we’ll have to play them a long time some more, once we start touring. Good thing none of us mind playing them. We still like ’em.”
It would be nice if the album did well enough to allow Robinson to give up fixing guitar amps for a living. The best part of the rise of “insurgent country” is that bands like the Backsliders — veterans who have been playing music like this for years in relative obscurity — have suddenly found popular tastes tilting more their way than ever before.
Really, things aren’t so different today from decades past. Whether Bakersfield in the ’60s, Austin in the ’70s or North Carolina today, as often as not, the best country music is coming from acts on the margins in places other than Nashville.
“We’ve seen this all before,” Robinson notes. “There’s been fringe country all along. Hell, Johnny Cash was fringe country. Those early Sun Records, Hank Williams, Buck and Merle and Bakersfield, Emmylou. Way before anybody appreciated all these people for being the American treasures they are, they started out on the fringes.
“It’s kinda cool that it’s come back, though. We had heard rumblings from various pockets, that this same kinda thing was happening in other cities for whatever reasons. I think people just got tired of doing something they didn’t want to do in order to ‘make it’ in the business, and decided to go back to trying to write good songs and figuring out where their real roots are. We’ve been gettin’ crowds the whole time, so maybe it’s just something people missed hearing.”