Album Review – El Dorodo’s “Unincorporated”

Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and appreciate that we’re living through an era in country music that future generations will look back upon with awe and envy. Not dissimilar to how Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings rewrote the rules of country music and opened it up creatively during the mid 70s Outlaw movement, what’s happening right now with earnest songwriters such as Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan is rewriting the expectations for artists outside of the Music Row system.

For Tyler Childers, part of that story is his backing band The Food Stamps, and it’s a story that really hasn’t been told, or told in-depth. The nucleus of the band is guitarist James Barker, bass player (and head bobber) Craig Burletic, and drummer Rod Elkins. They all went to school together at Cabell Midland High School in West Virginia, just over the border from Tyler’s home in Kentucky. Craig Burletic and Rod Elkins also went to college together at Marshall and earned Jazz degrees.

Before Tyler Childers ever came into the picture, the three were playing in a band called Deadbeats and Barkers, which according to the local paper, was an original roots rock band. The first paid gig Tyler Childers ever played was opening for them at a bar called Shoop’s in Huntington, West Virginia. It took another four years before the two outfits joined forces officially, with Tyler Childers starting to call them The Food Stamps somewhere around 2013.

This new album isn’t titled under The Food Stamps, or Deadbeats and Barkers though. Pairing with performer Doug Woodward, the group of old school buddies are calling themselves El Dorodo, and depending on who you talk to, they’ve been around for at least a few years. It’s one of those bands people love to tell you they knew about before you did, but the band itself has been keeping any official information or origin story rather nebulous, choosing to instead to keep the public guessing and on their toes. Either way, they surprise released a new album on January 27th called Unincorporated.

Not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but not completely sarcastic either, Unincorporated is a classic country album that is written and performed to very much emulate classic country songs, but served with just a dash of absurdity as to not be mistaken as genuine or sincere. With a deadpan delivery, the boys play off of country clichés in a way that’s not exactly comedy or parody. It’s too subtle for that realm. But if you also mistaken it as completely straightforward, then you’re the ultimate rube.

The songs and even some of the specific lines are slightly altered facsimiles of classic country tropes. The creativity of the work is in the nuance of how this material is delivered. Almost knowing that they will not be able to rise to the quality of the classics, they instead embrace their limitations, and pay tribute to classic country in their own silly, but still somewhat reverent way. This is no Wheeler Walker. It is closer to the more nuanced moments of Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats performed by guys who grew up on classic country.

Rod Elkins never gets enough credit for being the primary harmony singer for Tyler Childers on tour, and a good one. But he’s probably best as a harmony singer. Doug Woodward also has a bit of a nasally, and not naturally beautiful or distinctive voice. They’re not bad singers, but again, self-awareness of these shortfalls is why the music of El Dorodo is served with just enough tongue-in-cheek to make it interesting. For what the band is trying to do here, their voices actually work.

The music is always solid on Unincorporated, and though in certain respects the writing is cheesy and cliché, that doesn’t mean it’s simplistic. They give the audience something to unravel here. Also, to this set of ears, the best songs are the final two tracks, and the creepy, but well-done “Like The Others.” Still though, if you ask yourself if there are superior records out there being released to this in country music, especially in such a crowded era, the answer is probably “yes.”

But what makes this project important to highlight and remark on is during this era of Tyler Childers dominance, elements of El Dorodo have played a major role. Remember, producer Sturgill Simpson circumvented using The Food Stamps on the Tyler Childers records Purgatory and Country Squire, with some longtime Childers fans crying foul.

It’s hard to talk about Waylon and Willie and not mention Billy Joe Shaver. You can’t talk about the Grateful Dead’s country era without mentioning New Riders of the Purple Sage. The Food Stamps have played an important role in this era of country music, and El Dorodo is their stamp and contribution to it directly. It’s peculiar and probably not for everyone, though that’s part of the point. And even if it’s not meant to be totally serious, that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)

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