By Layla Marino
The term “junkyard country” was coined by an artist called Ponyboy in 2013. It seems that re-naming country is necessary nowadays, as it’s been co-opted by the mainstream media to include pabulum such as Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and, of course, the ubiquitous princess of snooze-pop, Taylor Swift.
Even fans of the already overly evolved country of the 90s such as Billy Ray Cyrus or Garth Brooks would agree that country’s current state of affairs has very little to do with cowboys, spittoons and Americana.
Having grown up in a largely country-hating household, I was not exposed to much of it as a child, and I can distinctly remember my dad saying most of it sounded like “two cats fighting in a burlap sack.”
However, some of the old country music isn’t completely unfortunate. Patsy Cline, for example had a beautiful haunting sound to her voice, or Loretta Lynn also had a way of storytelling in her lyrics which made being a coal miner’s daughter sound pretty cool. Johnny Cash, however, was hands down the coolest country singer of all time as well as one of the best musicians ever. Any musician who can make Nine Inch Nails bearable is ok in my book.
At first, I was happy when the distinguishing features of country were being drained out of the genre and homogenized into the solid mass that we know as pop. Per the 90s: pop is annoying, but pop country is insufferable. Having listened to bands like Echo Sparks and Ponyboy recently, however, I realize that something has been lost in that shift, and to be sure any cool points country gained through artists like Cash and Cline are definitely out the window. Cool-wise, country is currently deep in the red.
One of the things that made the older country legends interesting and cool was their ability to merge folksy country and cowboy songs with a more blues timbre and style. Now forced underground, “junkyard country” or “outlaw country” groups like Echo Sparks are doing the same thing; taking the best parts of the old country style and adding even more blues to make an almost indie country sound in the hopes of igniting interest in those with a more discerning musical pallette.
Echo Sparks are a trio based in Orange County, CA, and they aim to capture mission-era California country, 1930’s jazz and blues, and just a touch of rockabilly on their first full-length album, Ghost Town Girl.
The band, consisting of DA Valdez, CC Kinnick, and Cindy Ballreich, pride themselves on using very little studio trickery to come up with their sound; just vocals, a very prominent string bass (double bass), banjo, a guitar and the odd mandolin. There is nary an auto-tune or sound effect in sight on Ghost Town Girl, and lo and behold the lack of studio effects actually adds to their sound. Sometimes less is more.
Ghost Town Girl, available on the band’s Soundcloud page and on their website, opens with “Broken Arrow,” a classic country tune somewhat along the style lines of the Eagles’ classic “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” “Broken Arrow” introduces the uninitiated fan to the beautiful marriage of the Tom Petty-like vocals of DA Valdez and CC Kinnick’s haunting Pasty Cline vocal tone. This unique and beautiful harmony between Valdez and Kinnick is present throughout Ghost Town Girl.
As the album progresses, Echo Sparks show their diverse style with more folk offerings like “End of the Line” and “Mexican Moon,” their love of do-wop with “Shallow Water,” and their ability to add blues into the mix with “Torch Song” and “I Think it’s you.” While heavily country-tinged throughout, the album is a nod to all of the music styles which defined Americana in the early 20th century.
The album’s second song, “Rolling 60s” and the title track are our recommended picks for the best songs of the album. “Rolling 60s” isn’t your average country song, nor does it line up with many of the indie/country mashups which perforate pop music nowadays. With its minor key composition and unconventional tempo, this song is completely original, completely off any beaten path in music today, and completely beautiful to hear. From this video of their performance of “Rolling 60s,” it’s easy to see that Echo Sparks’ live sound does not deviate much from the recorded, proving their talent is all-natural.
“Ghost Town Girl” is so well-composed and the story told so well by the lyrics that poignant sepia-tinted images of old western town life instantly flood the listener’s mind. This song speaks for itself, really. It’s everything that was good in the golden age of country and the mission-and-mining era California put into one haunting song:
If the legendary rogue PBS Historian, Huell Howser, had heard Echo Sparks before his passing, he most certainly would have chosen the band to write the theme song for his “California’s Gold” series. To be sure, the group give a somewhat hipster-flavored, overly positive view of the old west. It’s done with great care, however, and in a way which doesn’t mimic any other indie/Americana trend out there nowadays. In re-tooling classic country western music for the indie set, the band does more for the genre than the diluted pop princesses like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood could ever dream.
Call it “junkyard” or “outlaw” conutry if you will, but I think we can all agree that the Man in Black would much rather listen to Echo Sparks than Taylor Swift.