When some folks talk of country music — or any genre, for that matter — there’s sometimes a tendency to over-generalize. For some, country means the watered-down-power-pop-with-a-touch-of-twang that dominates the airwaves. While the Nashville hit factory tends to garner the most attention (and, alas, airplay), there are “schools” of country, just as East Coast/West Coast rivalries can be discerned in hip-hop (and jazz before that). There’s that glossy Nashville variant and its mavericks (such as Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare); the somewhat more eclectic and roots-oriented Texas scene (Willie Nelson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore), and California’s rough-and-tumble Bakersfield Sound, with its best-known exponents Buck Owens and Merle Haggard (and, of course, Dwight Yoakam and locals Red Meat). And let’s not diss its bastard cousin, the SoCal-centered country rock scene (its granddaddy-band: the Gram Parsons-fronted Flying Burrito Brothers, with The Eagles being its most notorious exemplar) and its Bay Area cousin (The Grateful Dead, psychedelic icons with country leanings, and its spin-off The New Riders of the Purple Sage). Firmly between the two vectors of California country is a pair of Sonoma County farm lads collectively known as The Easy Leaves.
The Easy Leaves consist of Kevin Carducci (vocals, guitar) and Sage Fifield (vocals, bass), formed north of the Golden Gate in 2008. Initially, their intent was to form a traditionally oriented string band, but they found too many influences delightfully intruding — the towers of strength that are Bob Wills and Smokey Robinson were too powerful to be denied. Carducci’s musical fires were stoked by “Bob Dylan, Hank Williams [and his progeny], the Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Gillian Welch, Otis Redding, George Jones,” among others, he said. As for Fifield, he said, “I was into a lot of your characteristic classic rock radio stuff: Stones, Who, the Dead, Floyd, Zeppelin, but also some mellow songwriter stuff: John Prine, Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson. For a while I lived in Northwest Pennsylvania, where a former band-mate and I began frequenting a weekly bluegrass jam. Those jams were my first foray into the world of bluegrass, and it opened my ears to a whole new world of acoustic and country music.”
The Easy Leaves’ debut album, American Times, is most definitely country music, but it’s colored and enriched by many thoroughly integrated influences. The Leaves’ harmonies are resplendent with echoes of the great “brother” acts of country music: The Louvins, Everlys, and Glasers. The chugging locomotion of opener “Get Down” could almost be a cousin of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” but the merrily debauched lyrics betray the good-time inspiration of the Dead’s and New Riders’ cosmic cowboy ethos of the late Sixties and early Seventies. The mid-tempo sunshine of “Fool on a String” reflects a strong mid-1960s R&B influence, and the loping, amiably ominous “Better Get Off” could have come from Dylan & The Band’s Basement Tapes collection.
The one aspect almost all songs on this collection share is the leanness of that Bakersfield sound, as defined by an engaging, cracking beat; the resolute twang of electric six-strings, the midnight-lonesome whine of a pedal steel guitar, and heartfelt singing with both the singer’s heart and beer stains on his sleeve for the world to see. It’s that relatively unadorned rawness that cuts across generations and genres. “I love music that has a sense of place: Memphis soul, Texas swing, conjunto, Delta blues,” said Carducci. “Each one of those styles conveys a lot about the history of its place of origin. Bakersfield is one of those sounds, one of the signature sounds of California. There is a classic quality in the rhythm and instrumentation that kind of captures that spirit of a crowded honky-tonk [barroom].”
The Easy Leaves’ appeal, too, cuts across demographics, from fedora-enhanced hipsters to the conventional country faithful. Said Fifield, “I’ve had people who don’t identify with county at all say things like, ‘I don’t usually like country, but you guys won me over.'” The Leaves played this year’s Outside Lands Festival, prompting Willie Nelson (who later played on the same stage) to suggest they “should play together again” (!), and this past summer they opened some shows for deep-voiced country guitar wizard Junior Brown to good response from the predominantly mainstream country audience. Further, one of the Leaves’ videos has found a home on CMT (Country Music Television).
The Easy Leaves have toured as a duo and as part of a full band. For their upcoming show at the Great American Music Hall, Carducci said, “We’ll be performing with a five-piece lineup, with Vicente Rodriguez on drums, Dave Zirbel on [electric] Telecaster [guitar], and Josh Yenne on pedal steel.” Without a hint of compromise, The Easy Leaves’ inclusive-yet-very-personal approach holds much appeal for fans of Steve Earle, Whiskeytown, The Avett Brothers, and Brad Paisley.