It annoys certain friends of mine to no end when I tell them my cut-off point for country music is firmly placed in 1993. I can even pinpoint it to one song, Dwight Yoakam's resiliently sad-sack "Ain't That Lonely Yet", the high-water mark of his impeccable This Time. It later won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance and wriggled all the way up to number 2 on the Billboard country charts. But the real distinction it deserves is country music's Gettysburg, the moment everything would change for the worse (at least if you're the South.) When "sheen" mattered more than soul and Garth Brooks was the "face" of the genre.
"Ain't That Lonely Yet" comes to mind when I hear Cape Girardeau, MO trio Tom Sauk's "Whole Country Blues". Sonically the similarities are few, if existent at all. Country warbling is replaced by carefully coordinated folk "weeping". Barroom piano tags out for carved off-the-bone blues riffs. In Yoakam's beautifully stubborn track drums refused to stay the hell out of the way; here they quietly patter and wash back out with the tide. There are countless differences threatening to drown the comparison, but one similarity keeps it afloat. Both dig for nuggets of wisdom in pitch-black mines. It took Yoakam an unrepairable heart to know you don't always need to pick up the phone. In "Whole Country Blues" advice of "bad friends" is as likely to be sought as that of "good friends". It's the Who's "The Seeker" resurrected and given a copy of Fleet Foxes. Between bookending exhalations, survival becomes an art form where any sign (literal or figurative) is taken into account. All parties will move on, if they can find a way out.
Tom Sauk's new album Harbor (mixed and mastered by Shearwater collaborator Lucas Oswald) is out March 15th.