The way things usually go in music circles is that you start a band in your teens or early 20s, record an album or two, do a lot of relentless touring … and, then, perhaps you settle down once you reach that magic milestone of 30. Start a family. Take a better paying job. Forget about life as a touring musician. That’s the way things tend to go. This normal career trajectory, however, flies in the face of the husband and wife duo who make up the countrified Big Harp. Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drootin-Senseney met, fell madly for each other, had a baby boy, got married, had a baby girl, and then decided to start a band.
White Hat, an 11 song collection that veers wildly through such stylistic territory as saloon stompers, plaintive ballads, wide-eyed soul and fiery Tex-Mex delicacies, is the product of what is seemingly a contrary route to aspiring musicians: family first, music later (as opposed to the other way around). The band shows no signs of slowing down either: the album took a rushed three days to put to tape (it was recorded by Rilo Kiley bassist Pierre de Reeder), and Big Harp has uprooted themselves from Omaha, Nebraska — the site of their current record label, Saddle Creek — and settled down in the big, bustling city of Los Angeles. Sure, the Senseneys may retain ties to the city on the Plains — Stefanie is the founder of Omaha Girls Rock!, a music camp for girls that opened in July, and both members have played in bands associated with the city such as Art in Manila and Bright Eyes — but there’s an underlying sense in their itinerary and current course of going places and exploring the world, let alone a mish-mash of musical styles, and not letting kids slow them down one beat. Given the downbeat nature of most of the songs on White Hat, though, this lifestyle is one they understand is rife with danger and disappointment.
Distance and travel make up a great deal of the thematic behind White Hat. On opener “Nadine” the very first lines are “She went off to California like in every other song / Every cautionary tale about a pretty little blonde”. In “Goodbye Crazy City”, the protagonist begs of the place that he’s walking away from to “Give me what you owe me / I’ll take it, then I’ll leave”. In “Steady Hand Behind the Wheel”, the hard-knock life of the road once again takes a front seat: “We’ve got hours before we’ll make it into town / The engine’s running smooth, and the moon’s overhead / We’ve got hours before your back will find a bed”.
Big Harp are clearly leaving something in the rear view in the hopes that something more promising beckons, but some of these narratives end in tragedy: “Nadine” is a tale of a fetching young lass who leaves for the big city to escape one man but winds up in the clutches of another who cheats on her. Closer “Oh Nadine”, which references the opening track, is written from the perspective of the father of the Nadine in question, pleading with his daughter to come back home, feeling as though he’s lost his offspring to the evils of the big city. “Rest assured, my pretty baby, everybody pays”, cautiously intones another song on the album. There’s not a lot of hope that percolates throughout the course of White Hat — there’s always something menacing and despairing at just about every turn.
This wearied world-view is brought to life through Chris Senseney’s gravel-and-whiskey soaked voice, which is a bit of an acquired taste and one that recalls the lonesome baritone of the National’s Matt Berninger. Juxtaposed against the nasally vocal styling is a jaunty and loose vista of slow baked Americana; there are a great deal of detours and twists and tours on the journey that is White Hat. “Some Old World I Used To Know” is a gently strummed acoustic guitar ballad that is a little reminiscent of very early Tom Waits, circa Closing Time. “All Bets Are Off” is a careening bit of barroom country. “Let Me Lend My Shoulder” is a lightly brushed upbeat folk number with the only real redemption from the brooding nature of the record with the line “Let me point your feet back to the road”. “Out in the Field” is a left-field turn into Calexico territory with a beat rubbed clean on an old washboard. White Hat can be said to be a bit of a stir fry: there are all sorts of different ingredients brought to the skillet, but they all roast at the same dusty, sun-fried temperature bringing a bit of consistency to the concoction.
Still, you can’t really listen to White Hat without feeling a slight sense of déjà vu: that you’ve heard this done somewhere else, by other artists, with a great deal more originality and vigour. It’s hard to put a finger on it — there’s snatches of a little Gram Parsons here, a little Townes Van Zandt there — but Big Harp seem to be “hung up on the wall” of recreating sounds of jazzy country of yore. That’s not necessarily a bad trait, but White Hat shows a band that is still growing, still barreling through their songs, racing towards some greater goal that remains somewhat elusive.
That all said, there are moments of crystalline beauty: the lilting guitars of “Everybody Pays”, the rickety, out-of-control guitars that caterwaul through “Nadine”, the country and western swing of “Goodbye Crazy City” and the salsa mixture that “Out in the Field” adds as texture. As a whole, while White Hat isn’t the most markedly original collection of character sketches that you might have heard, it is an album for the back porch with a beer in hand as the wind gently slams against the screen door. It is also a distinctly family affair, rubbing against the bittersweet narratives of many of these songs. That contrast is enough to make White Hat a slightly imperfect but warming album that gets more and more inviting as you ignore the signifiers of what has come before and simply get lost in the ramshackle stories that these songs, and the husband-and-wife’s unconventional back story and pairing, have to tell.