From Austin, TX comes a unique take on American country music that is cosmic in scope, West Coast in attitude, but still well-inferred and tethered to the roots of Appalachia and the rust of Texas honky tonks. The group is called The Tender Things, and this new album titled How You Make a Fool evokes strong memories of the Flying Burrito Brothers and similar outfits that melded country with rock sensibilities, while making ample signature statements all their own, and moving classic-sounding electric roots music forward in time.
The Tender Things come primarily from the sweat and vision of frontman and songwriter Jesse Ebaugh. Bred out of Northern Kentucky with the influences of bluegrass music hovering very near, Ebaugh is perhaps best known for saddling up with the Heartless Bastards as a bass player for the better part of a decade. Over the last few years he’s been laboring to refine and produce his signature expression through The Tender Things project, and that effort really comes to fruition in this new record.
The hardcore country fans out there will find plenty of steel guitar and twangy leads to sink their teeth into, but How You Make a Fool is adventurous and offbeat compared to the average country or even country rock affair. Unencumbered by the rigidness of traditional country rules, The Tender Things let the songs choose their own path, but the results are still warmly familiar in the way they respect the time-tested hooks and modes of country and folk rock in both attitude and approach. This record is less classic and more retro, imbibing it with a cool factor sometimes elusive to neotraditional country.
One of the things that made so many of those early 60’s and 70’s country rock records so good is the players often had more passion for country than many country artists did. They weren’t tired of it yet, and they had the latitude to express their youthful passion for country from being outside the oppressive system of “The Nashville Sound.” That is what Jesse Ebaugh brings to the table, and was uncompromising in who he chose to help bring that approach alive.
The How You Make a Fool sessions included a who’s who of Austin musicians, namely Ricky Jackson known for playing with Steve Earle, Gary Newcomb who’s worked with Bruce Robison and Bill Callahan, bass player Z Lynch, and drummer Matt Strmiska. Piano player and singer Robert Ellis also makes numerous special appearances, and Patty Griffin appears on the song “The Secrets We Could Tell.” Adding important harmony dynamics to the songs allows them to be more indicative of the music era looking to be exhumed in this record.
It’s not that you can’t find other projects out there trying to do similar things, employing qualifiers in front of their country or rock styles like “psyc.” But a fuzzy guitar tone and band photos in Joshua Tree aren’t enough. Melding those 60’s and 70’s influences where the seams are hidden, and allowing the lyrics and instrument selection to blend smoothly is how Jesse Ebaugh and The Tender Things bring the Bakersfield side of the Laurel Canyon sound alive in a way that is rarely achieved.
Jesse Ebaugh is not going to wow you with his singing, and the songwriting is quality, but not other-worldly. It’s the blending and integration of it all, and the care that went into the effort that makes The Tender Things and How You Make a Fool worth seeking out.
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