Over the past dozen or so years the noise surrounding the fusion between country and alternative music has become a point of much rock snob conjecture. Beginning with Uncle Tupelo hanging their hat on what became known as the No Depression movement, alt-country has moved forward with devastating force. In recent years purists have cried foul over the recurring trend of alt-country based artists -- Wilco and Ryan Adams come to mind -- shirking some of their southern credibility in exchange for a more rock-oriented sound. In reaction to this shift, Bloodshot Records has filled the coffers with a multitude of tried-and-true country bluebloods ranging from impassioned songstresses like Kelly Hogan and Neko Case to Canadian cum country rockers the Sadies. The latest Bloodshot offering is the second album by steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse, Steel Guitar Rodeo. Long considered a cult icon of the alt-country world, Rauhouse has gained notoriety through his production of and performance with artists like Old 97s, the Waco Brothers, Kelly Hogan, Calexico, Howe Gelb, and Neko Case. After years as a respected sideman, Rauhouse has now stepped out and recorded an energetic mix of covers and originals that provides a much-needed elixir of brightness and wonder to a long somber alt-country crowd.
Part of the joy exhibited on this album is that Rauhouse exudes a spirit and passion for the country aesthetic but his musical choices are not bound to that genre. There are gentle strains of lounge, Ennio Morricone soundtrack instrumentals, and -- if you listen closely -- even Hawaiian music in the style of Don Ho. The bouncing instrumental "Widowmaker" sounds like it was just pulled out of a bin of old vinyl at a Kentucky neighborhood garage sale. The brushed drums jump while Rauhouse's playful steel guitar licks onward and upward to push the rhythm. This is a synthesis of traditional bluegrass and modern lounge music that quickly exhibits the full scope of vision that is present on Steel Guitar Rodeo. Keeping with this theme of combining elements of country music with other genres, "Hamma Hamma Hula" mixes dobro with steel guitar to create a line-dancing hula that wouldn't be out of place at either the Grand Old Opry or a celebration of Pacific culture. This ability to seamlessly join two disparate points of culture is a focal part of the excitement that Jon Rauhouse generates for his fans and peers alike.
Given the pedigree of his compatriots over the years, it would stand to reason that any Jon Rauhouse album would include key performances from many of his past working partners. Steel Guitar Rodeo is no exception, featuring vocal turns by Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, and Neko Case, to name a few. Most notably, Hogan provides vocals on a stellar cover of Django Reinhardt's "Smoke Rings", while Case steps back from her typical pugilist's punch and packs a wallop with a less combustible brand of singing on "River of No Return". One of the strengths of this album is that the guest performances flow well within the theme of the album. Rauhouse doesn't subjugate his vocalists to the role of second fiddle, but also does not allow them to take center stage. Instead they are added to and build upon the synergy that has been created on previous tracks.
Make no mistake, this is a party album and every party album must have its fair share of oddball tracks that stand out to guests. Rauhouse offers up a vibrant and mysterious take on the classic "Perry Mason Theme" using fingerpicked electric guitar and subtle percussion as the backbeat for the melody of the steel guitar and the addition of clarinet in the choruses. This is great addition that easily could have been a throwaway, but given the thoughtful way this album has been assembled it stands as further proof of the power and exploration that Rauhouse sees as tenets of the country music lifestyle.
A special place in my record collection is reserved for some of the works by Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, and the Old 97s. These albums represent a unique voice that illustrates everything positive in a muddled and negative music industry. Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Rodeo gives me pause to reconsider his role in these recordings. There is a vibrancy, creativity and cross-genre musical vision that does not dilute across the 18 tracks on this album. It is rare that an album harkens back to past eras, maintains a simultaneous sense of wit and poignancy, and produces something wholly new. It was my hope that Steel Guitar Rodeo would provide a pit stop until the next great alt-country album. Instead it is a great album that supercedes any labels.