By Eleni P. Austin
Several years ago Steve Earle wrote a soulful tribute to traveling musicians called “Hardcore Troubadour.” He just might have been talking about Tim Easton.
Tim Easton was raised in the fertile music community of Akron, Ohio. (A starting point for Chrissie Hynde, Devo and the Black Keys). The youngest of seven siblings, Easton began playing guitar at age 14. He was equally influenced by the Beatles, Doc Watson, Kiss and John Prine.
Following college, Easton spent several years rambling around Europe busking his way through Paris, London, Dublin and Prague. When he returned to the States, he briefly hooked up with the Haynes Boys band before launching a solo career.
Easton released his solo debut, Special 20, in 1998. As he recorded more albums, The Truth About Us (2001), Break Your Mother’s Heart (2003) and Amunition (2006), Easton continued to enjoy a peripatetic existence. He spent time in New York City and Los Angeles before finally settling in Joshua Tree.
A prolific artist, more albums followed, Live At Water Canyon (2008) and Porcupine (2009). Then in 2011 he self-released two projects, Beat The Band and Since 1966 , Vol.1. He also made himself at home at Pappy & Harriets. He has performed as a headliner, an opening act and a part of ad hoc super groups like Thrift Store All-Stars and The Sunday Band.
At the end of 2011, Easton and his young family packed up and relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. Inspired by the vibrant live music scene, he connected with local pickers and players to record his newest album, Not Cool.
The album gets off to a rollicking start with “Don’t Lie.” The lyrics are a forceful reminder that evading the truth usually creates bigger problems… “Everything you do everything you say, every stupid game you try to play/ Every waking hour and even in your dreams, you try to make things what they don’t seem to be- Don’t lie!” This stern admonition is propelled by a walloping backbeat, walking bass lines and incendiary guitar licks.
On Not Cool, Easton seems determined to jettison the singer-songwriter angst and get back to basics. Three songs, “Troubled Times,” “Lickety Split” and “Little Doggie (1962)” embrace the primitive cool pioneered by legends like Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent and Ricky Nelson.
“Troubled Times” relies on the classic “boom-chicka- boom” paradigm that Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two invented back in the ‘50s. Here the lyrics advises us not to remain beholden to our problems… “You rolled out of bed with a ton on your mind and no place for you to unload it/ Time to lay your weary blues down.”
On “Lickety Split” wah-wah guitar and rubbery bass lines boomerang over a tribal tattoo. The lyrics are a tribute to a roadhouse jezebel… “She likes to dance ‘til you drop, she likes to shake it to the Iggy Pop/ But if you ask just what she gets off on, she’ll disappear lickety split.”
“Little Doggy (1962)” pays homage to the Juke Joints and Honky Tonks that continue to thrive in Nashville by blending a handclap rhythm and slap back bass with a mix of acoustic and electric guitars that echo and sway.
On a couple of tracks, “Four Queens” and “They Will Bury You,” Easton locks into a swampy groove. The former is anchored by gutbucket bass, bottleneck guitar and a back porch backbeat that steals a bit from John Fogerty’s Creedence blueprint.
The latter is a reverb-drenched lament that offers up a series of hard-won homilies about life on the wrong side of the tracks.
Other standout songs include “Crazy Motherfucker From Shelby, Ohio.” This Rust Belt rave-up cloaks the “live fast, love hard, die young” ethos in ricochet guitar riffs and a locomotive rhythm. The scorching instrumentation coupled with Easton’s swaggering vocals come close to causing spontaneous combustion!
If the Monkees and Carl Perkins had ever collaborated they may have come up with “Tired And Hungry.” An elastic little rocker that puts Easton’s Dylanesque delivery on a collision course with whipcrack guitar chords and spooky organ fills.
Powered by banjo and mandolin, “Gallatin Pike Blues” is a ghostly rumination on East Nashville’s clogged creek. The song also name-checks Andrew Jackson and New-Grass progenitor John Hartford. (The late Hartford wrote Glen Campbell’s seminal ‘60s hit, “Gentle On My Mind”).
The album wraps up on a wistful note with two songs, the title track and “Knock Out Roses. (For Levon)” Not Cool is a cogent catalog of woes underscored by plucked strings and tinkly piano. It dovetails nicely into the instrumental “Knock Out…”. Highlighted by fiddle, banjo and mandolin runs, it’s an exquisite elegy to the late, great and gracious Levon Helm.
Produced by Tim Easton’s longtime collaborators Brad Jones and Robin Eaton, Not Cool was recorded in an astonishing three days! Easton’s whiskey soaked rasp is fully complimented by a crack cadre of Nashville cats; guitarists JD Simo and Sadler Vaden, bassist Joe Fick, multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia and drummer Jon Radford.
Although desert music fans miss Tim Easton, an album like Not Cool takes the sting out of his absence. This hardcore troubadour seems to have found his niche in Nashville, at least for now.