Remember when the Old 97s were awesome? You know, before Rhett Miller decided he wanted to be the indie-pop version of David Cassidy? Well, Rodney Parker & Fifty Peso Reward sound like the Old 97s did in that glorious golden age on The Lonesome Dirge, their second full-length album.
The Lonesome Dirge kicks off with “Firefight”, a high-energy but otherwise uneventful song that features the line, “Smooth and clean / Like a hundred dollar bill in the washing machine”, a Rhett Miller-esque lyric if there ever was one. The record quickly progresses to an amazing cover of “Atlantic City” that is almost as good as Bruce Springsteen’s original, and certainly better than the dozen or so other alt-country versions out there. Where Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” is sparse, Parker’s is rollicking and defiant, but still chock-full of classic Boss ennui. The other cover song on The Lonesome Dirge is “Wild Man From Borneo,” a tragic tale of human suffering penned by Texas’ most loveable weirdo, Kinky Friedman. The song is set against the backdrop of a travelling sideshow and its assorted freaks, but the themes of isolation and alienation are universal.
“A Knife Beneath Your Pillow” is a well-written rocker, but the music seems to be oddly reminiscent of that Toadies’ song “Possum Kingdom”, which you may remember from way back in your flannel-shirt days. Luckily for Parker, “Possum Kingdom” is awesome, so “A Knife Beneath Your Pillow” becomes awesome too, if only by association. By far, the highlight of the record is “I’m Never Getting Married”, a boisterous barroom singalong—complete with handclaps and tin whistles tootling in the background—that reminds us all that matrimony is for suckers: “There’s redecorations, there’s laundry to fold / There’s talks over dinner, there’s lawns to be mowed / There’s no one alive who could care less than me / I’m never gonna get married”. Throw in some bagpipes and substitute rowdy Bostonites for rowdy Texans and this could easily be a cut from a Dropkick Murphys album. In contrast, the final song of The Lonesome Dirge is the minimalist acoustic ballad “11 Hours”. It seems to be aiming for Nebraska-era Springsteen, but misses the mark. After 10- ass-kicking Americana songs, this is a letdown that grinds the album to an awkward halt. Luckily, the rest of the record more than makes up for one minor misstep.
Rodney Parker’s backing band, Fifty Peso Reward, is extraordinary, thanks mostly to solid lead guitar from Zach Galindo which serves as a strong counterpart to Parker’s Texas rasp. Producer Erik Herbst keeps the slickness to a bare minimum, letting the album’s scrappy nature speak for itself.
This spring, Rodney Parker & Fifty Peso Reward are touring the various roadhouses of the American West, culminating in an appearance at the Best in Texas Festival in June. If there’s any justice in the country music world, by the time July Fourth rolls around, The Lonesome Dirge will be blasting out of the speakers of every barbecue joint and dive bar in the country. You can’t go wrong with an album like this as your summer soundtrack.