If you’re willing to overlook their eyeroller of an album title (“Exciting New Interactive Album Title Technology” the liner notes boast) and a home-shot cover photo of a blonde in a bathtub full of cherries—not as erotic as it sounds—you’ll realize the Kerosene Brothers have something good going for them. Better known with a slightly different line-up as Hayseed Dixie—the bluegrass band who defied logic by selling 100,000 copies of an AC/DC cover album—guitarist/fiddler/singer John Wheeler, banjoist Don Wayne Reno, and mandolinist Dale Reno (along with bassist Dave Harrison and drummer Ethan Pilzer) are out to prove rock and bluegrass are different sides of the same coin. Okay, so they’re not curing cancer, but there are less worthy endeavors. And when the end result is as fun as Choose Your Own Title* is, I’m willing to overlook crummy album titles and disturbing cover photos.
There’s a healthy mix of traditional covers and originals on Choose, and while the cover tunes, such as the re-working of “Poor Ellen Smith” into “Ellie Schaefer” featuring new lyrics and electric guitar from Wheeler, they still come across as reverent. It’s a notion that can be attributed almost solely to Don Wayne Reno’s banjo, which gets equal play with Wheeler’s guitar. (Trivia tidbit - the Renos’ dad, Don, composed “Dueling Banjos”.) Wearing headphones while listening to Choose, the banjo plinks from the left and the guitar pounds from the right ... same coin, yin and yang, whatever you wanna call it, the Kerosene Brothers are sure it’s the right way to rock out.
Of course, anyone who has listened to an alt-country CD over the past dozen or so years knows rock and country or rock and bluegrass complement each other well. The Brothers’ rollicking cover of the Old 97s “Doreen” fulfills the “rockgrass” promise Rhett Miller and Co. hinted at on the original Hitchhike to Rhome version (as opposed to the more-rock, less-banjo take from Wreck Your Life). Meanwhile, the amiable blues swagger of “Mr. Wrong” is allegedly a reworking of Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, but a writing credit should really go to Cracker’s David Lowery, who penned a tune of the same name for his band’s 1992 debut disc. I’m not about to call for a grand jury investigation into plagiarism, but check this out: Wheeler: “I know you’re looking for Mr. Right / But while you’re waiting for him to come along / C’mon and spend the night with Mr. Wrong” vs. Lowery: “Don’t want to hear about Mr. Right / ‘Cause he’s out of town tonight / Baby come and spend some time with Mr. Wrong”. Hmmmmm. Regardless, the song rocks, with just the right amount of twang so as not to offend the sensibilities of either guitar or banjo fans. And the Brothers could pass for the Bottlerockets on the bar room rock of “Last Call”, where Wheeler notes that women get a lot better looking at the titular time. In case my point still isn’t clear: Nothing the Kerosene Brothers do is too far afield from any number of established alt-country acts. Listeners of those groups should fear not that the Brothers are goofy novelty rockers; it simply isn’t true.
I compare the Kerosene Brothers to (semi-) mainstream alt-country bands because those acts’ fans stand the best chance of digging the Brothers. Bluegrass purists will be up in arms—as mentioned earlier, Wheeler adds new lyrics to traditional tunes such as “Katy Daly” and “In the Pines” (a.k.a. Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”), and I doubt electric guitar was part of the original bluegrass equation—and you just can’t please all of the people all of the time.
The catchall description of what exactly the Kerosene Brothers do appears in every other review for Choose, so it might as well show up here too. Where Wheeler and his partners in crime, in their Hayseed Dixie incarnation, take rock songs and add bluegrass elements, the Kerosene Brothers take bluegrass songs and add rock elements. If that appeals to you, dig in. Just don’t judge the Choose Your Own Title* by its title or its cover.