Authenticity and blue collar cred are the things every country star wants, but so few who end up on the biggest of stages actually have. They refer to how their grandfathers and great grandfathers worked in the coal mines and fought in the wars, hoping beyond hope that the multiple degrees of separation between them and the struggle of everyday people will still bequeath them some inkling of realness to sell to fans. But the struggles of the common man still remain very much a mythology to both the artists, and the fans who live vicariously through the facade mainstream country creates. That’s why their version of the South and the Heartland is a consonant bonfire party in a field flanked by brand new $55,000 trucks and hot women everywhere. It’s like a country music Candy Land.
In contrast when you explore flyover country and the dirty South, you see a much different estimation of things. Towns are ravaged from unemployment, meth and substance abuse tear through rows of singlewides where there used to be fertile planting ground and strong communities, and the best and brightest all move away to the bigger cities. The choices don’t come down to a brand new Ford or Chevy. It’s move or stay, work or starve, sell out to the factory or sign up for the military.
These are the true realities that weigh heavy on the minds of men and women as they congregate in dingy bars in dying towns to remember the good times, and try to forget the bad ones. And the bands that take the small stages with bad PA’s are piloted by guys who two hours later were working at a bad job right beside the beer chuggers who’ve come out to listen to them, and fight through calloused hands and juggle babysitters to make it all work.
Songwriter and frontman Nick Dittmeier has seen the struggles from all sides. Living on the Indiana side of the Ohio River in the greater Louisville, KY area, he can pull inspiration from the evisceration of the coal economy, the dilapidation of the Southern small town, and the abandonment of the Midwest as the traditional American agrarian culture is replaced by the rise of urbanization and corporate farming.
The struggles of the people left in these areas who are clinging to life in the only homes they’ve ever known, this is the inspiration that goes into Midwest Heart / Southern Blues, marking a nexus for the heartbreak that criss crossses all of America’s forgotten corners. Similarly, the inspiration for the music is drawn from true country, Southern rock, Heartland sounds, and riverside blues. The struggling people of American may have been forgotten by many, but most all are represented on this album.
In a song like “Pills, Jesus, and War,” the tough choices and lack of opportunity are articulated with cutting truth. “Just My Job” explores the harsh reality of having to make a living doing something you can’t contemplate with good concise, but you do the job anyway because you have a family to feed. Songs like “Ever Since You Left Town” share insight into the constant flux small town people must constantly live in, as opportunity and the quality of life seem to be sucked out of communities, relationships, and family by the constant pull to leave. It’s the systemic hopelessness that grips small towns that once made country music the true expressions of country people, and gave them a voice to communicate their struggles to the outside world. There’s a tragic beauty to the poetry and honesty of these people forged in their perseverance.
The writing on Midwest Heart / Southern Blues is great, and so is the playing. Dittmeier’s guitar licks have that inherent Southern twang and a tasty adherence to the melody that can’t be taught, while his backing band called The Sawdusters is right on his heels, and lending tasteful harmonies. The stories may be distraught, but it’s an enjoyable album to listen to with developed melodies, smart riffs, and effective choruses that are just loose enough to remind you they’re real.
Midwest Heart / Southern Blues is a gritty album that you can tell wasn’t mixed in a major studio, making it endearing to some, though others may find it a little too rough. About the only misstep on might have been “Atheist Wedding,” where Dittmeier struggles to get his underlying point across.
Overall, these are story songs with real characters that come to life through Dittmeier’s vision, and allow you to not just hear about them, but feel and even smell the presence of the characters almost like they were right beside you in the room. You’re there listening to the “Rhythm of the Train,” laying right beside some forgotten soul in the Midwest as they hear the trundle and whistle giving a curiously soothing heartbeat to the night.
“Country” isn’t represented on mega stages or in truck commercials or on CMT. You have to dig for it, and dirty fingernails are rewarded by stories that burrow deep to touch something catchy rhythms and cultural buzzwords will never be able to reach.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (8/10)
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The Sawdusters are Zane Hilton (Guitar,vocals), Aaron Waters (bass), and John Clay Burchett (Drums).