Caleb Klauder is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and mandolin player who grew up in a remote community on an island of Washington State, “far from the heartland of country music” as he says in the brief liner note to Dangerous Mes & Poisonous Yous, his second solo album. He sounds as country as they come, though—or rather, as country as they came, for Klauder’s country music is a music of the past. Not for him the slick arrangements and pop-rock mannerisms of much current Nashville fare. The past, to misquote L.P. Hartley, is another style of country, and Klauder’s music confidently visits a period running roughly from the late hillbilly era through postwar honky-tonk and on to western swing and bluegrass.
Perhaps it’s because of, and not despite, his non-heartland status that Klauder is able to make this stand so convincingly. He hasn’t always performed country as close to the template as that found on this album, however. In the 1990s he co-founded the folk-rock group Calibo, while his solo debut, Sings Out (2000), mixed folk, country, and rock textures. Klauder also plays mandolin and sings with the Foghorn Stringband and, before that, was a member of another string band, Pig Iron. Dangerous Mes & Poisonous Yous was originally released in 2007 and is being promoted again in anticipation of a forthcoming album.
It’s a welcome opportunity to become acquainted (or reacquainted) with an excellent set of songs delivered in a new traditionalist manner. Whether channeling Bob Wills on self-written tracks like “Can I Go Home With You” and “Sick, Sad and Lonesome”, Monroe-style bluegrass on “Hard Times” and “Innocent Road”, or the straight-down-the-line honky-tonk of “Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On” (originally a hit for Kitty Wells), Klauder manages to pull off the trick of sounding both fresh and timeless in a manner that brings to mind performers such as Wayne Hancock or the Wrights. Klauder is ably backed up by fiddle, steel and electric guitars, bass, drums, and occasional piano (the latter used to particularly good effect on the rolling honky-tonk of “The Price You Pay”). There’s also some excellent, uncredited mandolin (presumably Klauder) on “Innocent Road”.
Klauder possesses fine songwriting skills and manages to inhabit his chosen styles with utmost authenticity. He keeps lyrics and meter simple, but also inserts the little twists and minor intricacies that constitute much of the dynamic of classic country. The emphasis throughout is on clear and direct communication and Klauder has the voice—high, lonesome, effortlessly strained—to carry this off, adding just the right amount of yearning to give each song an edge. There’s a fleeting, but ever so effective, moment at the beginning of his performance of “Rockin’ Years” (a country number one for Dolly Parton and Ricky van Shelton in 1991) when the singer’s voice wavers on the word “can” in the line “I’ll do everything I can”, casting a subtle shadow of doubt over this song of fidelity. Klauder’s control of this vitally important technique shows his mastery of the musical language he has chosen to adopt. “This Old Song”, a Klauder original that has been covered by Kris Drever on his recent Mark the Hard Earth album, is given an emotive reading, with the singer allowing his voice to slip and crack for longer periods than the other, more tightly controlled material on the album. It seems right that this revealing of the inner grain of Klauder’s voice is placed at the end of the album.
There are some well-chosen and well-delivered cover versions, including the aforementioned “Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On”, “Rockin’ Years”, Dolly Parton’s “The Pain of Loving You”, and Ray Price’s “Talk to Your Heart”. The latter brings to mind the classic 1950s recordings of the Louvin Brothers (Klauder covered the Louvins’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love” on Sings Out). These songs, along with Klauder’s rootsy style, may well lead some to wonder whether there is anything of relevance to the 21st century. Is it “merely” a historical exercise? Is he too faithful to his precursors? The answer lies in the confidence with which the music is delivered, and the assertion, albeit implicit, that what passes for contemporary country music could do with rather more of this kind of directness. Like Hancock, the Wrights, and Dale Watson, Klauder performs material that is referential rather than deferential, not trying to recreate a lost era, but rather bringing what can be used from the past to communicate in the present.