Red states got the Waffle House. Blue states don't. Dan Bern goes classic country.
Dan Bern's Hoody finds the singer-songwriter thoroughly embracing his classic country muse while still taking the time for a folk song here and a rocker there. The album's second song, "Merle Hank and Johnny" is essentially its mission statement. It finds Bern reminiscing in his twangiest voice about growing up in Iowa and hearing "Merle, Hank, and Johnny / Buck Owens, Jimmie Rodgers, and George Jones" on the radio while spending "Every last dime on rock and roll." He talks about roaming the world around the time the Berlin Wall fell and notes the music they listened to "had drum machines." Eventually he gets around to wondering what his daughter is going to remember about growing up, noting "Cartoon kids, they all play rock and roll" but that he'll make sure she hears those country greats, too. Bern's use of the term "rock and roll" is loaded here: it's a slightly derogatory, intentionally out of touch way to refer to what most simply call rock music, and it puts him in line with how those old school country icons and their fans would refer to the genre.
"Merle Hank and Johnny" is a great song, and whenever Bern embraces either the classic country genre or draws his lyrics from what seems to be personal experience on Hoody, he succeeds wildly. "Terra Haute" is a winning country ambler, with lots of brushed snare, quietly rolling banjo, and some nicely placed pedal steel guitar. Bern sings about being on the road in the wake of Thanksgiving and a visit home. The chorus "I'm just trying to stay awake on the road / Maybe I should get some pie a la mode" strings together loosely connected couplets about people he's met and reminders of locations from his past. The strong melody and that upfront confession "I'm just trying to stay awake on the road" makes the song work wonderfully. Opening track "Hoody" sounds like a rocker for about 10 seconds, before a harmonica and pedal steel presage a downshift in speed and change in mood. The tension-filled guitar is replaced by a mid-tempo banjo and Bern declares "Your heroes all get teleprompters / I've got a bucket of beer". This is quickly followed by the chorus, "I've got my GPS and my hoody / And my one guitar that stays in tune." This is right on the edge of falling into self-parody as Bern is working so hard to show us how ordinary he is. But the song itself is a winner and he follows up that first chorus with the line, "Sometimes your heroin's heroin / Sometimes coffee / Sometimes a girl", and he's righted himself.
"Waffle House" is probably the album's most striking song, 90 seconds of exaggerated country bumpkinism entirely dependent on its chorus "Red states got the Waffle House / Blue states don't". You can almost here the "A-yup!" in the middle of that refrain, but it isn't actually there. It's extremely silly, but it's also extremely memorable. Also memorable is Bern's cover of the 1976 Johnny Cash song "One Piece at a Time", in which an autoworker spends his whole career smuggling Cadillac parts out of the factory in his lunchbox to assemble his very own car. Bern wisely doesn't try to replicate Cash's delivery, and he fills out the original spare arrangement with banjo, harmonica, and additional guitars. Even with more instruments in the band, though, Bern keeps the focus on the story, which is smart since the story is so entertaining.
"Lifeline" is another winning track, mostly due to its strong refrain and its guest vocalist appearances, by co-writer Eric Kufs and particularly ex-Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson. And Bern's literal interpretation of the refrain "I've got a long lifeline" at the end of the song, where he holds out the word "long" for a full 20 seconds, is pretty damn impressive. The uncharacteristically dark and rocking "Welcome" also works, despite being a bit scattered lyrically. It takes on America's gun violence problem, love of vices, and advertising sloganeering all at once, which is a bit much. But once again, a catchy turn of phrase mostly bails Bern out, because putting "Old men with hard-ons and madmen with guns" in your chorus does a lot of heavy lifting for you.
The only places Hoody doesn't work as well are when Bern plays folky love songs. "Turn on a Dime", "World", and "Sky" don't sound much like each other, but they share a more general point of view. Bern comes off sounding much more ordinary when he isn't being specific. He's a good songwriter, but his melodies and chord progressions aren't so unique that they can make a sentiment like "With makeup on your face / And your dress of gingham lace" sound fresh. "World” starts off weird, with lyrics about scientific experiments and atomic blasts. But the actual sentiment of the song boils down to "We're so into each other that we should probably check and see if the world still exists outside this room", and while that's nice, Bern doesn't pull it off like, say, Jason Isbell. "Sky" isn't a love song, per se, but its idea, "I'm okay as long as I can see the sky above me" isn't particularly fascinating, either. These are all decent songs, but without that specificity, be it personal or story-based, they don't make nearly as big of an impact as the album's more distinct songs.
A handful of merely decent songs on an album full of near-great songs makes for a pretty damn strong record, though. Hoody mostly finds Bern in a conversational mood, and trading his reputation for confrontation for a set of really well done classic country-styled songs works very well for him here. Bern has been around for a long time at this point, and he's been stuck with the label "songwriter's songwriter", which is generally code for "the public at large is never going to get this guy, but those of us who know what we're doing know how good he is." So he might as well keep doing exactly what he wants and making his small but passionate audience happy.