Album Review – Benjamin Tod’s “Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing”

When the story is told about how country music was saved in the modern era, it’s the post-punk roots musicians who should be given deserved credit for coming into seed the revolution. They were the ones to pick up the traditions that were cast off by the mainstream. They were the first to move back onto Lower Broadway in Nashville when it was still a seedy place full of pawn shops and adult bookstores. They were the first to cultivate grassroots networks autonomous of Music Row in Nashville, creating sustainable careers, and eventually, launching outright superstars.

Benjamin Tod is the embodiment of that post punk roots archetype. As a high school dropout who spent much of his youth hopping trains and busking for ragged dollars to get by, he’s the kind of character a lot of other underground artists emulated. Raised in Cottonwood, Tennessee, Benjamin Tod met his wife and fiddle player Ashley Mae in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky when they were both still teenagers, playing music in a band called Barefoot Surrender, and eventually forming the Lost Dog Street Band in 2010, coined after the couple’s beloved labrador Daisy.

By that time though, the underground country scene was already unraveling from its heyday, and evolving into more of the Appalachian revival we see today inherent in artists like Tyler Childers and Sierra Ferrell. But Benjamin Tod and the Lost Dog Street Band survived the utter implosion of that era through dogged determination, and because they fit within both of these eras. And while the whole DIY attitude carried over from the punk era became less necessary as independent labels and representatives rose up to support the artists worthy of it, Benjamin Tod and the Lost Dog Street Band stuck to their principles and didn’t play the game.

The approach remains very much DIY, and attitudinal. Not playing ball with labels, not soliciting media for attention until earlier this year, Benjamin Tod is as quick to rant about the shady nature of the business as he is about his issues with substance abuse and mental health. A site like Saving Country Music? Of course it’s never talked about Benjamin Tod and Lost Dog, because it’s not real. That Trigger guy is bought and paid for as much as anyone. But of course, that pride also kept Tod from asking for any help either. As he sings in the opening song of Lost Dog Street Band’s latest album released earlier this year called Glory,

I won’t compromise or sign with the thieves
I’m the underdog trash of the underground scene
Only take pleasure when I compete
With a knife in my back, outnumbered by three
I’m on the wrong track hanging off the caboose
I can turn all the chaos to shelter and food
And I may not be pretty like all of you tools
But I fight like a tramp and I work like a mule

This same DIY attitude is brought to the music itself. With minimal effort spent on arrangement—and Benjamin’s vocal delivery being rather dry and almost matter-of-fact in it’s mood—this has kept much of the public at arm’s length from this music. It sounds underground, in a roots style that mostly imploded around 10 years ago with the disbanding of the .357 String Band and the disappearance of Hank3. But it’s the songs and the stories that can’t be denied, and what has sustained Benjamin Tod despite his stodgy and principled attitude, and has even crowned him one of the preeminent songwriters of our time, irrespective of the adversity placed upon him, by himself and others.

Though Benjamin Tod loves to tell you how this is all self-made, the YouTube Channel Gems on VHS also had a heavy hand in garnering the success he’s achieved over the last five years, with his video rendition of “Using Again” crossing some 11 million views, and multiple other videos on the channel accruing 7 figure stats. Then again, it’s hard to know if it’s the support of Gems on VHS that launched Benjamin Tod into the underground stratosphere, or if it was Gems on VHS benefiting from Benjamin. They both have been riding the insatiable wave of hunger for authenticity in music that was hyper-accelerated during the pandemic.

The title of this Benjamin Tod solo project called Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing is to be taken literally. Comprised of 10 songs recorded in only six hours, some of the tracks were written as long as 10 years ago, while others are more recent. What binds them all together is how Tod shelved them all as being too painful to perform. The loss of his dog, the suicide death of his former bandmate Nicholas Ridout from the band Spitshire, and potential splits from his wife Ashley Mae are the kinds of subject matter covered here. That Tod was ready to share them all now, and together, arguably resulted in the best collection of songs in his catalog.

Recorded completely acoustically and alone, with just a little natural room reverb to embellish the signals, Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing is a merciless unburdening, a scathing piece of self-assessment and bloodletting, imparted with an incredibly poetic conveyance that makes the words resonate far beyond what any instrumental accompaniment could achieve. These songs deserve to be naked. This album is basically Benjamin Tod laying prostrate on the ground, free of stitch or cover. Judge away if you will, but you can’t ever accuse it of not being raw and honest.

These are the recitations of a man standing on the brink of precipices, peering over the edge of a cliff, or down the barrel of a gun, or at the bottom of a bottle of pills, and choosing to exorcise his pain in words as opposed to more catastrophic alternatives. No wonder this stuff was too painful to share before. Having to relive those moments in performing these compositions had to be harrowing in itself, let alone turning them into some sort of commercial product to share with the world.

“It won’t be nominated, awarded or appreciated by this world the way it should,” Benjamin Todd chided upon this album’s release. “Their industry is too trite and shallow to even entertain real emotion. It is a relic of something that is lost on the masses. I too am becoming obsolete in this world from every mirroring axis.”

There is certainly an element of truth in this. But this is also Benjamin Tod taking pride in his struggle, because it’s in the throes of roiled emotion, and tired and hungry where his muse emerges. That’s what you hear in this album, which alleviates criticisms from some previous efforts by centering the attention solely on his songs.

The full truth is that Benjamin Tod has become more beloved and successful that some entry level performers signed to major labels these days, or many independent musicians in the middle tiers. And Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing very well may be the record where the rest of the country and roots world awakens to what they have with Benjamin Tod.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)

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