The underlying appeal of the modern-day independent country music Outlaw is how much they remind us all of ourselves. They’re not untouchables up there on stage dazzling us with their charismatic magnetism. It’s not a star and fan dynamic. They’re singing about the same fears and struggles we all face, and celebrating the hard fought victories towards humble goals we all have. They’re an extension of us on stage, scraping by and persevering, unwilling to compromise or take the shortcut.
From Shawnee, Oklahoma, this is what Casper McWade has been doing in beer halls and backwoods joints for years. He is one of these artists that’s too rough-and-tumble for the Nashville scene, and not polished enough for Texas/Red Dirt. But McWade has garnered a following all his own between the margins, just like fellow songwriter Cody Jinks, who recorded one of McWade’s songs on his recent album The Wanting, and released a cover of “Don’t Follow” by Alice in Chains with McWade earlier this year.
With Casper McWade’s new album Unraveled being released from a label called Death Before Pop Country Records, you can be assured of what you won’t find any of. And sure, there’s some of the studded attitude you get with much of modern Outlaw country music, including a rambunctious rendition of the Wayne Mills and Erica Sunshine Lee-penned “Whiskey Bent and Jail Bound” about a bad hombre with bad luck and worse tendencies. “That boy ain’t nothin’ but a country song…” McWade sings.
But similar to Cody Jinks, the song comes first with Casper McWade, not some stylized braying on about what a badass he is, which siphons away much of the substance and cool factor from some of today’s country “Outlaws,” and renders them a little lost in time. And aside from a lingering rock influence that has more to do with attitude of approach than any sound, Casper McWade is straight ahead Outlaw-influenced traditional country.
If you want to understand what makes a modern country Outlaw tick, listen to Casper’s song “The Eagle,” where he spells it all out. Putting the music before any marketing, and one foot in front of the other while holding steadfast to a dream is what’s at the heart of the Outlaw philosophy beyond any specific sound. And as McWade illustrates throughout the record, it’s not easy, and puts a strain on patience and personal relationships as one soldiers forward in country music against the odds.
Along with the aforementioned cover of “Don’t Follow” by Alice in Chains with Cody Jinks—which marks one of the highlights of the record—McWade makes the somewhat unconventional, but ultimately successful choice to cover an REO Speedwagon song too. “Take It on the Run” is not exactly Outlaw country fodder on the surface, but Casper proves otherwise with his rendering. And just like with the rest of the eleven songs on Unraveled, his backing band the Honkytonk Rebels make the music country to its core. Great steel, lead guitar, and fiddle can be found throughout the record.
In some ways Unraveled fails to make a cohesive case for itself with the varied nature of the covers, and you’re fair to characterize the songwriting of Casper McWade more as journeyman and blue collar than poetic Americana mastery. But that’s also what the everyman crowd that assembles around an artist like Casper McWade prefers compared to a lot of preamble and posturing. And Casper captures emotion in verse as good as anyone in the song “Chasing The Light” about the passing of one’s father.
Another one of the honk tonk heroes of our time who may never receive proper recognition, but soldiers forward regardless of the fame he may find from an undying loyalty to the music, Casper McWade sings and plays for the rest of us living in the real world, as opposed to the fantasy portrayed on FM country radio.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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Purchase Casper McWade’s Unraveled