When you think about country and roughed-up roots music, New England doesn’t exactly leap to mind. Of course, country music, like just about any other genre or type of music, can be found almost anywhere. For decades now (and certainly for the two that I’ve been living and writing in and around Boston), the country and roots music scene (perhaps “scenes” in the plural is more accurate) has blossomed, flourished, and thrived. And I would even argue that a good chunk of what I’ve heard over the years — whether it be mandolin whiz Jimmy Ryan, bluegrass-and-whiskey shit kickers Three Day Threshold, truckstop prophet Roy Sludge, or country-folk siren Lori McKenna (who has written a slew of songs that none other than Faith Hill has covered) — make roots music that’s more authentic and entertaining than most of the ersatz , empty calorie pop that Nashville churns out like cotton candy. Girls Guns and Glory, and Sarah Borges, the two excellent artists from Massachusetts I’m highlighting this week, are no exception.
When it comes to top-notch artists and bands from Boston, Massachusetts, or just beyond the state line, few artists’ catalogs sit as high on the top shelf of quality as those of Girls Guns and Glory and Sarah Borges, each of whom is releasing new albums next week. Both are celebrating the occasion with a joint CD-release show at the Sinclair (52Church St., Cambridge; www.sinclaircambridge.com) on February 7. Borges’ s new offering, “Radio Sweetheart,” is her fourth album since she made her debut with “Silver City” back in 2005, and it represents her first fan-funded solo effort since breaking with her old band, the Broken Singles. GGG, as they’ve been called for shorthand, have the brand spankin’ new “Good Luck” out — their fifth record since forming in 2006, and one which features the stamp of producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who’s helmed albums by Steve Earle and the Bottle Rockets, among other notables.
Both of these artists have grown up, and grown exponentially since those first days and months of trying out songs, starting bands, and releasing records in the mid-2000s. From this vantage point, the two early, separate features I wrote about Sarah Borges (for the Boston Phoenix back in 2005) and Girls Guns and Glory (for the Boston Globe in 2007) offer a window into the beginnings, perspectives, and early ambitions that would propel them both to become what they are now: consistently creative artists, confident songwriters, and road-tested performers at the peak of their powers.
Local honky tonk heroes Girls Guns and Glory lead off this weekend’s two-part special Boston edition of “RPM” (see below); Tomorrow’s installment will take a look back at the homegrown beginnings of another of Boston’s brightest talents, Sarah Borges, right when she was on the verge of releasing her debut album and becoming a staple of Boston’s roots-with-amplifiers music scene. And hey, stay tuned and don’t go away. With so many amazing artists and bands hailing from in and around this great town, we’ve got plenty more in store for these pages in the days ahead.
They may come from places named Scituate and Hingham, but their sound is pure south of the Mason-Dixon line. They’re Girls Guns & Glory, one of the hottest bands in Boston right now, and their vibrant new CD, “Pretty Little Wrecking Ball,” offers ample testimony to New England’s thriving roots music scene, where bluegrass and blues, and country and western are as much a part of the landscape as punk and garage rock.
3G singer and rhythm guitarist Ward Hayden is only 25, but his flexible tenor and songs of sin, redemption, and loss sound of a much older vintage, seasoned with personal pain and spiked with copious amounts of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. Hayden says he first sought out the music of the country giants in college, and what he heard “did something to me.”
“I wish I could put my finger on it, exactly,” says Hayden over dinner and drinks with his bandmates at Matt Murphy’s Pub in Brookline. “There’s definitely something about that music that you don’t hear too much nowadays. [Williams’s] life was about heartache – he was writing about things he knew – so he was very true to himself. His music wasn’t overproduced or flashy. Never did I not believe a single word that he said, because it was honest.”
Hayden, with ’50s-style pin-up good looks, is as slight and sharp-featured as Williams was. Unlike his idol, however, he opts for water over whiskey as the pints flow for his bandmates. Despite 3G’s hard-bitten odes to demon alcohol on “Wrecking Ball,” like “Brown Bottle Blues,” Hayden’s choice of beverage is a sign that his life expectancy will surely surpass that of his spiritual mentor, who died young in an alcoholic haze in the back of a baby-blue Cadillac.
Still, Hayden confesses that many of the tracks that make up “Wrecking Ball,” whose release the band celebrates tomorrow night with a show at Harpers Ferry, come from personal strife – namely, a long-term relationship that broke up and sent Hayden into an emotional tailspin. That’s when he began writing the clutch of songs that appear on the new disc. Creatively speaking, at least, the breakup just might have been the best thing to happen to Girls Guns & Glory. “It seems to me that Wardy comes up with three or four songs a week,” says percussionist Brendan Murphy, grinning approvingly. Over the past year or so, echoes drummer John Graham, “it seems like we’ve picked up steam.”
In an effort to capture that steam on tape, 3G began recording at Scituate’s Noise in the Attic Studios last summer. Despite working within the classic but familiar framework of old-school country cut with a dose of roots rock, “Wrecking Ball” feels like an exciting blast of fresh air. “I tried to bring that stage feel and energy to the studio,” Hayden says. “We wanted to capture the essence of our live performances.”
Kier Byrnes, front man for the Boston bluegrass-punk outfit Three Day Threshold (they’ll join 3G for tomorrow’s show), calls the quintet one of his “favorite bands in town.” Girls Guns & Glory, he says via e-mail, “has a live show that rivals any of the bands you’d see in the Beale Street juke joints of Memphis or the famed honky tonks on Nashville’s Lower Broadway.” Furthermore, Byrnes adds, Hayden’s “got a great sense of composition and arrangement and his abilities just keep evolving. He borrows elements of early rock ‘n’ roll, folk and country music and creates something totally different and modern.”
Murphy proudly calls the album “our crowning achievement,” and claims the key to 3G’s getting a robust, swinging sound that’s natural rather than studied has to do with band chemistry. “I don’t think that when we play a song we’re thinking about genres,” he says. “We all have different ideas about what we like, and that’s why it comes out the way it does.”
“I’m not a folk musician and I’m not a country drummer,” adds Graham, shirking the genre descriptions that usually surround the band. “I like to hit ’em really hard.” And, as lead guitarist Colin Toomey interjects, “I can’t play like a country guitar player – I’m a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player.” Add to that bassist Bruce “Tad” Beagley’s love of outlaw country and traditional Irish music, and Hayden’s high, lonesome howl of an earlier age, and you’ve got a novel tweak on traditional expectations. The approach, 3G’s members agree, is both a reaction and response to much of modern rock and country radio.
“I would say definitely,” Hayden says. “For a long time I was hearing stuff on country radio that was formulaic and didn’t grab me. I’m not going to lie, though – some of the pop songs come on and they’re pretty good. There is some good contemporary stuff out there, and every once in a while they knock it out of the park. But [modern] country music is some of the worst in terms of formula, and that turns me off.”
Girls Guns & Glory are here, they say, to offer an alternative: “There’s definitely a strategy, and it’s about putting our music in front of people and giving them the chance to check us out and hear it,” says Hayden. “Hopefully, we’ll put on a good show, they’ll get their five dollars’ worth, and go home happy.”
What you want to call them, they say, is up to you. But right now, after drinks and dinner, they’ve got to jump-start Beagley’s old pickup, which is on the fritz again. They bid goodbye with Beagley in the driver’s seat, turning the ignition and steering as the truck rolls down Harvard Street, the rest of the band pushing the vehicle from behind at full gallop. With a sudden roar, the truck rumbles to life, and the guys grab a foothold and hop aboard. The ride may be bumpy, but the pickup, and the band, are headed in the right direction.
For more music, pictures, links, and news you can use, visit the boys in Girls Guns and Glory directly at: www.girlsgunsandglory.com