december 2008

The Youngers: An American 'Heritage'

By David McGee

The Youngers (from left):Dax Bryan, Todd Bartolo, Randy Krater, Justin Schaefer: In 2008 no other American band took as direct a shot at the effects of the faltering economy on working class America as the band did on its John Carter Cash-produced Heritage album.
Photoc:Paul V. Carter

In 2008 no other American band took as direct a shot at the effects of the faltering economy on working class America as did The Youngers, the Pennsylvania-born and -based quartet whose compelling second album, Heritage, was produced by John Carter Cash (and recorded at the Cash Cabin Studios in Tennessee), whose own heritage might have taught him a few things about the concerns of average working Americans. This confluence of sensibilities behind the board and in front of the microphone resulted in not one song but a clutch of songs depicting the anguish of men and women seeing their jobs in some cases literally head south, in others simply crumbling under the weight of financial pressures and merciless schedules taxing the spirit to the extreme.

Yet Todd Bartolo, the Youngers' founder and principal songwriter, insists he had no intention of writing overtly political songs when assembling the material for Heritage. Rather, he says quite matter of factly, "I was just writing about what I was seeing going on in America as we toured around. Just what was outside our windshield."

What was outside the Youngers' windshield, as chronicled by Bartolo, was this: after an opening, but unusual, heartbreaker (titled, appropriately enough, "Hearbreaker") come three straight first-person accounts of the working man's woes in a country where their labor seems unwanted and unappreciated. The sturdy, determined gait of "Heritage" frames the lament of a railroader who sees jobs being shipped overseas and businesses being shut down, no matter that the rank and file are "doing our best to turn things around." He sees the efforts of the labor force as "trying to keep our heritage alive," once again articulating an idea that's bigger than the plight of the working man-it's about the fear of our nation's very fabric being rent asunder by a government divorced from its fundamental principles. At the end, with the music charging forward behind him, Bartolo falls into a simple, perhaps rhetorical litany: "How 'bout some relief for the railroad man?/How 'bout some relief for the steel mill man?/How 'bout some relief for the farming man?/How 'bout some relief for the truck driving man?/How 'bout some relief for the working man?/How 'bout some relief for the working man?" Which leads directly into the fierce attack of "Highway 9," the tale of "a drifter, and a drunkard sometimes" who "once worked for the state, out on Highway 9." He's been unemployed for a year, his family "left me a long time ago," and he's living well inside a bottle now, an American desapericido, one of the "disappeared ones" hiding in plain sight from the Atlantic to the Pacific, living under bridges and in cardboard boxes, wandering forlorn from place to place, "just a gambler in life's game, ready to place my bet." And who's coming down Highway 9 but the fellow telling the next wrenching tale, "Truck Driving Man," frazzled by a landscape dotted with exploding cars and besieged by cops all too ready to write him up-and all he wants to do is get home to the woman who loves him. "Well the world just don't understand a truck driving man," Bartolo moans, as the song, rather than resolving, roars to a close with nearly a minutes' worth of Bartolo's angry, relentless electric guitar protestations. In the Youngers' world, nothing seems settled or easy, and when you stop to think about it, the songs' main characters, all damaged and seething inside, are like human time bombs, silently ticking, their fuses burning down, as their freight trains and big rigs go hurtling at a public unaware of the explosive devices at the wheel.

Todd Bartolo: 'I was just writing about what I was seeing going on in America as we toured around. Just what was outside our windshield.'

"It really all comes back to roots," says Bartolo, the son of working class parents himself. "I don't know, I guess looking back it's more Americana roots than I thought it to be. You're not the first person to say, 'This has a lot of things about America in it.' When I was putting all the stuff together I didn't really think about it that hard."

Even his fellow band members-bassist Randy Krater, guitarist Jesse Nocera (since replaced by Dax Bryan), drummer Justin Schaefer-bought into the concept. "I think they know what the big picture is and they knew some of those songs were important. They really just kind of trust my judgment on certain things. If a song isn't working, we'll all talk about it. But for this record, everything just felt perfect. Everything just fell together, It was weird, almost like it was meant to be. Each song on there complemented the others."

Even John Carter Cash, Bartolo says, refrained from discussing the issues the songs addressed, which is not to say the producer wasn't touched by what he heard. "He never really talked about the issues. A lot of the songs moved him, though, like 'Downtown.' I remember recording that and us all listening to the playback. For some reason that song hit home with him. I don't know what it was about it, he never said, but he loves that song. I think he really enjoyed the differences in each song as much as we did. I wanted to make a record that had something on there for everybody. That's kind of how I looked at it. I like records that have something different, where the whole record doesn't totally sound the same. Like there's some bluegrass on there, there's some straight country stuff on there, rock 'n' roll on there, kind of a couple of pop-rock songs on there. My whole goal was to make something that connected with people and make people feel as good about it as we felt when we were recording it."

On that count Bartolo and his Youngers mates succeeded admirably too, while staying, shall we say, on message. Krater contributes a honky-tonk moaner, "The Ride," its booze-laden ambiance masking the story of a trucker who's trying to drive away from the pain of busted romance, not knowing if he'll "come out at the end in a pine box or a changed man." There's a Springsteen-ish blast of rock 'n' roll, "In the Middle Of the Night," with a Spectorian soundscape, Jim Hoke's wailing sax solo, familiarly frayed around the edges, and a cast of nocturnal characters whose games and posturings Bartolo chronicles, from "Cinderella sitting all by herself," "Dusty Davey lost again" and "a poet on the sidewalk rambling off a verse," all bent on lighting up a "quiet little town," because "rules are made to be broken." (As an aside, Bartolo admits critics have given him some heat for so blatant an homage to the Boss: "I get a lot of flack for 'Middle Of the Night,' especially, with the saxophone. I was never trying to copy anything; pay homage, yes. I've seen a couple of reviews that said, 'Everything's great but he stole the saxophone from Springsteen.' I was thinking, You know, those people never listened to Springsteen either, because he's paying homage to those artists in the '50s and '40s who used saxophones all the time. He's just incorporated it into his music.") From a tip of the hat to Bruce the band bows to Mr. Dylan in the thick, Blonde On Blonde ambiance of "The Wild Ones," a recondite tale, possibly about a hit man or some small-time hood and his buddies who work under cover of darkness and "go to bed with the rising sun." It sprints along on fuel supplied by a sludgy, roiling soundscape mix of organ, strings, piano, guitars and shakers, foreboding and moody but oddly uplifting all at once. Fittingly for a record produced by Johnny Cash's son, Bartolo's terrific train song, "Big Ol' Freight Train," rumbles along in a hard charging style the Man in Black would have appreciated, especially in the ample room it provides to Ronnie McCoury for a fleet, hard driving mandolin run, to Jim Hoke for an expressive (and "Orange Blossom Special"-style) harmonica interjection and to John Carter Cash's wife Laura Cash for some red-hot fiddling at the end. Laura Cash makes another strong impression on the disc with her beautiful fiddling doubled to sound like the twin fiddles of the Texas Playboys on a touching love song, "Right All the Wrong," an effect suggested by western swing aficionado Randy Krater. "Laura grew up playing that western swing type stuff," Bartolo notes, "so it was almost a perfect match-she knew exactly what we wanted in those parts and she did an amazing job."

The road to Heritage is one well traveled by many bands, involving multiple configurations of the lineup that jelled on the album, explorations of other musical styles, and Bartolo's evolution as a songwriter. The band members all hail from Berks County in southeastern Pennsylvania, with Mohnton being Bartolo's home town. In addition to working with a band called the Stone Poets and accompanying singer-songwriter Tom Hampton, he made a bit of a name for himself during a stint with the progressive bluegrass band Frog Holler. He and Krater (who had also played with the Sonny Miller Band and Sand Creek) were the foundation for the Youngers, whose first incarnation included Michael Beaky, described by Bartolo as "a really great banjo player who took lessons from Tony Trischka" and drummer Frank Orlando. When Beaky left to pursue other ventures, Bartolo replaced him with his brother-in-law, hot-shot guitarist Jesse Nocera. Orlando soon departed, and Tom Hampton joined as the new drummer. This Youngers lineup made it onto record in 2005 with the release of the band's first album, Output, on the independent Obuck Records label. Output is a promising start, with the musicians' country influences apparent in the band's basic rock 'n' roll drive, but its songs, albeit pleasing, are devoid of social conscience-it's a rock 'n' roll band making a rock 'n' roll album, pure and simple.

"It took a couple of years to make that first record," Bartolo explains. "I had been writing songs for a long time, and I had a whole bunch of songs ready to be laid down. It was time where I really needed a first album so people knew who we were. That record took two or three years to make-you know, making records is expensive. So it took me a long time to put that one out and everybody had been waiting for it. Really, there was no real rhyme or reason, I just had all these songs."

No sooner had the band completed Heritage than did guitarist Nocera go his own way. "He needed a break, had other things he wanted to do," Bartolo says. "We talked about it, everything's okay as far as our relationship. But we parted ways for a little bit, and he has other hobbies." Enter Dax Bryan as Nocera's replacement, and, occasionally sitting in at concerts, keyboardist James Harton.

How John Carter Cash came to be involved with the Youngers is a tribute to the wonders of modern technology, specifically e-mail and the Internet. Casting about for a producer who "got what we were doing, got our sound and would work with us for the music and not just for the money," Bartolo came across an online video of John Carter discussing his burgeoning career as a producer, his standards, how he liked bands with unique sounds, and enjoyed recording at the cabin his father had turned into a studio late in his life when he was too ill to travel to sessions.

"Watching him in that video, I felt comfortable," Bartolo recalls. "Of course, I'm a huge Johnny Cash fan, but that wasn't the reason why I went with him. Something spoke to me in his video; I thought we could be good friends."

E-mail correspondence ensued, Bartolo mailed Cash a copy of Output, Cash invited him down to check out the studio, and... "As soon as I got in the door, I thought, This is where I want to record. It had everything I wanted in a studio and more. It was very inspiring there. A lot of great people I admired had recorded there. It was a very positive place to record. Surrounded by woods, and we like the mountains. There was an inspiring aura about the place, and I just loved being there. One thing led to another, we agreed to record together and it was the best experience the band has ever had. It was an amazing experience. Everything came out a hundred times better than I thought it would." One week of tracking and recording, another week of vocals and overdubs, and Heritage became reality.

Perhaps the finest compliment that can be paid to producer Cash is that the Youngers of Heritage sound pretty much like the Youngers of Output, but with a bigger, richer sound, and a more evolved songwriting focus you would expect of a growing band and songwriter.

"John Carter Cash helped keep us simple and stick to our roots, really. Not overproduce things. Everything nowadays is so polished, and I really don't like that too much. I just wanted to keep it as raw as possible. He had great suggestions on arrangements and things like that. We had been rehearsing these songs in my attic for almost a year, just trying to get them ready to record. So we had been used to playing a certain way, and when we took them down there to record, he said, 'Hey, why don't you guys try something different here? Why don't you do it this way?' And we'd try it and it was like a whole other door opened. So there were some songs like that where his suggestions kept us pretty simplified as far as how we record them and what we add. Sometimes less is more on songs. That was always my philosophy and I try to stay true to it. That's his part in it, really. Plus just a great advice person. It wasn't just music with John. It was advice; he was a great mentor in a way."

That said, the Youngers are finishing out 2008 with a few more live shows even as Bartolo looks ahead to the band's third album. He's already got some songs percolating.

"I'm excited about recording the next record, really," he admits. "I have a couple of songs I believe are album songs. So I'm kinda slowly putting it together. I am thinking about it-that's what I do, think about music. And you know, a musician's work is never done!"

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