Radio Nationals – Smokin’ in the rain
The Radio Nationals are in the Institution again.
“We practice a whole lot,” says drummer Rick Cranford. “That way we can put off a [high] level of energy while still keeping it tight and in control so the songwriting shows through.” Still, everyone needs a break. On this chilly November afternoon, the guys turn up their collars and step outside the band’s ragged practice space — the Institution — for a smoke. It’s ugly, even by Seattle standards. Cranford measures the downpour, all swarthy clouds and surly wind routing blankets of showers across the city. “It’s raining like seven bastards,” he says.
Keep in mind that stormy forecast and consider one of lead singer Jared Clifton’s primary goals for this band: to be successful while “crossing genres without raising too many eyebrows.” Clifton explains that the Radio Nationals are “just as likely to draw influence from Willie Nelson as we are from Led Zeppelin. Anything goes, as far as I’m concerned. I think there’s too much emphasis on fitting into a specific genre.”
The Radio Nationals certainly throw many ingredients into the fold. This is a rock ‘n’ roll band with an undercover mix of hill country acoustics and 1976-era CBGB punk. But as far as a record deal goes, cue the red flag. Think of, say, Steve Earle and his too-rock-for-country, too-country-for-rock battles with MCA, and on paper it seems a grim outlook for stability.
Enter Richard Ray. A local fan, Ray brightened the skies by starting the homegrown Roam Records and splitting the cost to finance the band’s 2000 debut EP Exit 110. By the time the band released their first full-length, Place You Call Home, in late 2003, it was the blossoming imprint’s eleventh disc.
“It was a great way to get off the ground without all the politics and hassles of a major label,” Clifton says, though he adds that they likely wouldn’t turn down the chance to move up the ladder. “At this point, yeah, we’re ready to deal with those politics and hassles,” he acknowledges.
Formed in 1999, the Radio Nationals — Clifton, Cranford, Richard Davidson (bass/vocals) and Aaron Taylor (guitar/vocals) — have developed a regional following largely based on radio play of the gritty Exit 110. Since then, their sound has matured, and Place You Call Home centers the group at a blissful meeting point between the sonic pillars of Crazy Horse’s muddy guitar rock and the fiery bar-band attitude of the Bottle Rockets.
Underneath that spit and kerosene is Clifton’s keen songwriting, delicately tracing the often disheartening discoveries made on the path from his roots in small-town West Virginia to the Pacific Northwest. “A lot of the material is dreaming of getting out,” Clifton says. “Sometimes you actually do get out, only to find that what you’re looking for isn’t really there.”
A vast travelogue within the bounds of Americana terrain emerges on Place You Call Home: the luscious country fields of “Katie Dear”, the bleeding-finger garage-rock crunch of “Reverend Jim”, the dirt-road tavern appeal of “Backseat Queen”, and the heartbreaking, unsentimental folk of “Black Lung”. Other tracks range in theme from boozy bonding (“On The Capo”) to empathetic reflection (“Scream”).
Snuffing out their American Spirits, the boys leave the cold and walk back inside the Institution. Clifton reflects on the band’s far-reaching nature: “We never set out to be a rock band, pop band or an alt-country band,” he says. “I can see our future becoming a bit more focused on the stories of characters, rather than personal experience. But no matter how it sounds — twangy, rockin’, or whatever — we’ll work on songs, and if we like it, it’ll go on the record.”