Country Music and a Breath of Fresh Air
There’s something going on in the country music orbit. It’s not ol’ timey porch music anymore, well not entirely, and the wind is changing in such a direction that’s driving a wedge deeper into the divide between more traditional country and pop country. And that’s really awesome to see. Over the last few years the orbit has been swirling around two producers/engineers and their affiliated offshoots: Dave Cobb and David Ferguson.
Dave Cobb’s producing accolades shed light on careers like Jason Isbell, Waylon and Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson, Zac Brown Band, Colter Wall, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, and the great John Prine as well as non-country acts like All Them Witches, Rival Sons, The Revivalists, Lake Street Dive, Houndmouth, and Marcus King Band. And in the other corner we have engineer David Ferguson. Mostly known as the right-hand man to Rick Rubin during Johnny Cash’s American Recordings sessions, Ferguson has worked with the likes of John Prine, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, The Del McCoury Band, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, and Sturgill Simpson.
It’s pretty plain to see these two heavyweights have produced some heavyweights of their own, and then those heavyweights are creating some waves that too are becoming, well, heavy. Let’s pluck out Sturgill Simpson and Dan Auerbach. Sturgill’s producing roster includes Margo Price, Lillie Mae, Lucette, and Tyler Childers, who’s been Simpson’s groomed prodigy of sorts. Oddly enough, both Simpson and Childers have released bluegrass/old-time albums during quarantine as odes to the sounds that brought us here.
Auerbach on the other hand has churned out a fair amount of country/folk-centric albums from artists like Nikki Lane, Valerie June, Ray LaMontagne, and John Prine (a bit of a common thread here), while also producing everything from Cage The Elephant and The Growlers to Lana Del Rey and Dr. John. More recently, under his Easy Eye Sound label, Auerbach has enlisted a roster of up-and-coming artists that may pique your interest like the stunning Yola, Early James, Dee White, The Gibson Brothers, and Shannon & the Clams.
But nothing really compares to the outward migration country is witnessing with the masked Canadian act Orville Peck. For starters, he’s darn near impossible to pin down (good luck trying to see what’s under the mask), and aside from his deep Roy Orbison-like vibrato vocals, his style spans the spectrum of what classic country was, where it’s going, and everything in between. Also, he’s the quite the oddball of a character in a scene of rough-and-tough getups by identifying as a gay cowboy. Yes, you read that correctly. Take his debut record and most recent EP for some spins and you’ll notice a handful of undertones that may perk your eyebrows (hint: they’re frickin’ awesome, both sonically and socially speaking). If that’s not out-withthe-old-and-in-with-the-new, then that saying’s as good as dead.
The man behind the curtain, the masked man, or the Wizard of Oz. Call it whatever you want. Sault, the unknown and anonymous collective, is exactly that. If you’re unfamiliar, join the club, but they’re really something to behold for what they’ve unveiled to the world. Their ambiguity and anonymity says everything about the music. It’s a bit like the time Unknown Mortal Orchestra stunned the world by being, well, unknown for months while their music whirled through confused minds until their eventual disclosure months later. Ruban Nielsen of UMO explained at the time that he didn’t expect their immediate rise to fame and didn’t have a plan to reveal the project to the world in a proper fashion. But this time it feels different. Something says Sault doesn’t want to be uncovered, and that’s totally cool.
So, who are they? Where did they come from? What do they want from us? And more, importantly, why and how is their music so damn good while we wait in the dark? Well, here’s what we know: they’re British, Laurette Josiah, Michael Kiwanuka, and producer Inflo (who produced Kiwanuka’s previous two albums with the great Danger Mouse) are the only ones credited to the group by name, and they’ve released four full-length albums in a year and a half (that’s Beatles-caliber work ethic).
They don’t talk to the media, they have never played shows and don’t seem likely to do so (pandemic aside, of course…), and their intent is to strictly have the music do the talking. And it certainly speaks. It speaks worlds. Pulling from post-punk boogie funk, straight-ahead dance-floor grooves, dub, gospel, R’n’B, afrobeat, and a sprinkling of house, they know their stuff when it comes to putting something down to tracks. Every one of their albums has an identity of its own, whether it’s the straight-line hip-hop grooves on 5 and 7 or the afrobeat and lo-fi breakouts on Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) from earlier this year. Oh, also, the other tidbit we know is that they’re not very happy with the way the world is going right now, which plays into the anonymity part pretty darn well. More recently, tracks like “You Know It Ain’t” and “Little Boy” dive deep into the racial divide and friction that has been the on the forefront of society over the past years. And we’re here for it. We’re here for everything they have to offer and more.