This review was originally published at The 9513 in May 2009.
Although country music has been called the white man’s blues, you won’t hear much of that legacy on mainstream country radio, which seems more infatuated by the sun-dappled soft rock of the Eagles. For real insight into the country-blues connection, you need to look to someone like J.B. Beverley.
Beverley, who heads up the Virginia-based honky-tonk outfit The Wayward Drifters, might seem like an unlikely source for such knowledge. After all, his background is in punk rock: The founder of bands like The Bad Habits and The Little White Pills, he’s even served stints as frontman for The Murder Junkies, the former band of the late GG Allin.
As a music fan, though, Beverley is an admirer of Jimmie Rodgers and Jimmy Martin, Hank Williams and Howlin’ Wolf, and these are the influences that permeate his work with the Wayward Drifters.
The band’s sophomore album hits shelves next week, and in the grand tradition of the blues, Watch America Roll By often feels like a series of duets in which one of the voices happens to be instrumental. In the blues, it’s usually a guitar that does the talking, helping the anti-hero give voice to his pain. With the Wayward Drifters, it’s more often the banjo of Dan “BanjerDan” Mazer, a veteran musician whose mastery of additional instruments like mandolin and Dobro makes him the resident virtuoso. The trio is rounded out by the bass-slapping backbone of the group, a hell-raising ex-cop named Johnny Lawless. For this studio recording, they supplement their sound with guest musicians on mandolin, electric and steel guitars, and fiddle.
For Beverley, who traded in his own train-hopping habit to become a touring musician, travel is understandably a major preoccupation. Whether by automobile in “Interstate Blues” and the title track, by train in “Gonna Ride a Train,” or even by foot when he gets desperate enough (“Walked Across Texas”), the most important thing is to keep on moving. Ole Hank surely would’ve understood, so it’s fitting that Beverley also tips his hat to that quintessential rambling man with a Luke the Drifter style recitation titled “End of the Road.”
Since the rambling life doesn’t typically lend itself to stable relationships, it’s no surprise that women are portrayed as devils at worst and opportunities to get the blues at best. Both “Thanks for Giving Me the Blues” and “Me and My Blues” find Beverley moving on in the wake of failed relationships, with the latter including the quiet vow that “It’s been me and my blues most my life/I don’t need no money, sure as hell don’t need no wife.” Even the one sweet ballad here has some of its dysfunction writ large in the title: “Favorite Waste of Time.” Thanks, honey?
As you might expect, beneath it all there’s an infectious undercurrent of punk attitude. Indeed, the very fact of recording an album about rambling and no-good women in an old country blues style is an implicit F.U. to most of what’s happening in mainstream country today. The closest Beverley gets to making this statement directly is the disarmingly wry “They’ll Only Play My Music When I’m Dead,” which finds the possibility of posthumous success leading Beverley to wonder whether he should “eat some lead” so as to expedite his mother’s retirement.
That same gift for bluntness shows up in the aptly-titled kiss-off “I Don’t Give a Damn,” in which he tells a returned ex-flame to hit the road in no uncertain terms: “I’ve had my nose busted up and my shoulder and my knuckles too/But I’d chop off every finger I’ve got if it’d keep me safe from you.” Although it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which chopping off all of his fingers would keep a man safe from an ex, the sentiment is clear enough: when your presence elicits threats of self-mutilation, it’s probably time to go. He’s just not that into you.
Punk infiltrates the music itself on the proud “Don’t Need No One,” a Little White Pills live staple reconfigured as a sprightly bluegrass-tinged acoustic raver. You haven’t really told someone off until you’ve shouted “I don’t need no one and I don’t need you” at the top of your lungs, preferably with an unruly chorus of others at your back. It doesn’t matter if it’s not entirely true (everyone needs someone, right?), it’s just plain empowering to spit those words from your mouth with a spirited pump of fist or two. Because there’s a little punk in everyone.
I don’t know if they’ll play this music when J.B. Beverley is dead, but you’ll have the option of playing it yourself next Tuesday. Passing up that chance means missing out on one of the year’s strongest indie offerings. Let’s hope these bus wheels keep rolling down the highway for a long time to come.