october 2008

Working Man Blues

By David McGee

The Youngers
Buck Records

Produced by John Carter cash, who is getting very good at what he does, The Youngers' Heritage strikes a mighty blow for the rank and file. Kicking off with an easygoing, cautionary warning about a flighty woman ("Heartbreaker"), it quickly engages real world issues in dramatic fashion, as it tells of a bitter, befuddled and angry American workforce—the railroad man, the truck driving man, the displaced land owner in a armed standoff with the law—and the more you listen the more you realize songwriter/lead singer/lead guitarist Todd Bartolo's Haggardian world view is coming from a real place in his soul, and he's hurting for those to whom he sings. Given recent headlines emanating from the financial community amid the ongoing economic crises, Bartolo's portraits of working class fears and frustrations hit with palpable impact, right on the money, or what's left of it.

At the start, Heritage-strikes one as a very good traditional hard country record, with its bright, swirling mix of twangy, chiming guitars, solid percussion and rich, humming organ supporting Bartolo's wry, dry vocal on "Heartbreaker." But on examination it's not your run of the mill done-him-wrong song. In the soaring choruses the woman in question is described not only as a heartbreaker but more tellingly as a "soul chaser." Now, heartbreakers are a common, everyday occurrence in life, literature and music but a soul chaser, now that's something more malevolent and insidious, a special breed programmed to turn you inside out and hang you out to dry without provocation or compunction. So when Bartolo sings, "Take my advice, she'll do you in," don't be lulled into complacency by his resigned tone—failure to heed this warning could be fatal.

So only one tune in and Bartolo has served notice of his ability to sense the deeper forces altering commonplace lives. Thus the perfect setup for 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 workers 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 fundamentals, shall we say. 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," who's 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. Bassist/vocalist Randy Krater's honky tonk moaner, "The Ride," is almost a relief in this context, but its booze-laden ambiance masks 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." 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. So it's hardly a surprise that Krater's sullen trucker tale is followed by the sound of a snarling, searing top strings guitar riff and a doom-laden crunch (with Ronnie McCoury's mournful mandolin lines cutting through the morass of electrified heat) as Bartolo channels the soul of a farmer who's in an armed standoff with lawmen set on repossessing his land, since he can't make his mortgage payments anymore. The story isn't resolved here, any more than any of the others are;at the end, the farmer is hunkered down "in the pale moonlight," shotgun at the ready, knowing what's coming in the morning but vowing ominously, "ain't sending no warning/ain't sending no warning." Next, he's airborne, in "Seat 24," staring out the window and musing on the misfortunes of others he's known who couldn't take responsibility for their actions, as he mulls the contradiction between the beauty of the land from the air and the ugliness of life on the ground, where the TV offers "nothing but negative news/the radio is slowly fading away/along with the soul of rock and roll/I always thought music healed your soul." That may be the deepest cut of all, finding out the music you've loved offers no solace, and Bartolo hints as much when he sings of having no answer to the question of "where you going and what you going to do"—"I keep asking myself the same question," he declares, "but still ain't found no truth."

So it seems perfectly appropriate, following this talk about the sudden impotence of rock and roll that "In the Middle Of the Night" should be a glorious rock 'n' roll celebration, unabashedly Springsteen-derived in its Spectorian soundscape, in Jim Hoke's wailing sax solo, familiarly frayed around the edges, and in the 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."

"The Wild Ones" is a recondite, Dylan-styled 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 thick, 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 Laura Cash for some red-hot fiddling at the end.

But finally, and despite the flashes of bright, buoyant hope peeking through songs such as "In The Middle Of the Night" and "Big Ol' Freight Train," the dirge-like "Downtown" closes the deal on an unsettled note. Bartolo gets duded up for a night out "where the pretty girls are," even though "no one knows my name," leading him to the fatalistic conclusion, "I'll never find what I'm looking for." Ultimately he's rendered mute as the music chugs ahead, the drums clattering, the guitars twanging eerily in an echoey ambiance that sounds as lonely and forlorn as Bartolo's lyrics intimate that he, or America, is. Autumn in the Promised Land just got a bit chillier.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024