Those of us who have come of age in the era of big business music have rarely enjoyed the autonomous glory of hearing a band for the first time with no expectations. These days, it’s rare for an act to have not had its own Disney show, a guest spot from Pharrell in a video, or saucy pictures all over the Internet before we hear a single note. Therein lays the beauty of One for the Ditch, the first collective release of songwriters Tim Easton, Leeroy Stagger, and Evan Phillips.
Certainly, attentive fans of trans-genre, new folk singer-songwriters will know Tim Easton. His career as travelling troubadour, folk artist, and amateur watering hole enthusiast have garnered him acclaim from the likes of the men of Wilco and Lucinda Williams. His partners in One for the Ditch may be less recognizable in the lower 48, but in their primary residences of British Columbia and Alaska, they are no secret. The three got together in Girdwood, Alaska, during a winter storm and, with no plan to record, simply let the tape run. What was produced in those short sessions is a showcase of talented songwriting, sterling musicianship, and a not-so-subtle reminder that some of America’s best music is still being made on the margins.
The album opens with “Hell of a Life”. Frankly, this track sets the tone for the whole record. The tale of a musician, lack of money, and squandered opportunities is couched between “La la La la, what a hell of a life”. Getting paid takes a back seat to having “some fun”. “Highway 395”, a song framed around the route running through British Columbia, is a contemplative ballad. A chorus of “I don’t really wanna waste my life no more” is not so much a reflection on the value of a career in music, but rather the decision to prioritize emotional truth over selfishness. “Festival” is a laugh out loud take on the proliferation of music festivals and the crowds that they attract. It pokes fun but feels sincere and appreciative. “She Was Gone” is a rowdy love song that features all three delivering the chorus. Like most of the album, the melody is simple but addictive.
All three musicians have an impact on One for the Ditch and each makes great contributions, but Easton’s writing reflects a depth that few American songwriters are mining. His is the title track and the anchor of the record. His steady development since his debut as half of the Haynes Boys is impressive. His most recent efforts have reflected a more political side, but his decision to steer clear of that on this record displays his versatility and is reminiscent of a young John Prine. No one who has listened to the Whipsaws’ latest release, 60 Watt Avenue, will be shocked at the road weary and memorable tracks provided by Evan Phillips. However, it’s Leeroy Stagger (who may be the least known in the United States thanks to an aggressive touring schedule for Phillips’ Whipsaws) that lifts the record from solid to infectious. Every word that comes out of his mouth rings true. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning to his cuts time and time again.
If your interest lies in acoustic-driven singer-songwriter material, Easton Stagger and Phillips’s debut is a must own for this year. Don’t wait for one of these guys to show up on a Disney show before you buy the record. One for the Ditch has done its part to keep honest American music alive for one more year.