BY MICHAEL BERICK
Among the many colorful chapters of Rolling Stones’ lore is the influential, although short-lived, friendship between Keith Richards and country-rock savant Gram Parsons. The legend goes that Richards and Parsons became fast friends in 1968 with Parsons schooling Richards on country music and the next year the two bonded over who-knows-what in the Southern California desert near Joshua Tree. Parsons (who died in 1973) later tagged along on the Stones’ ’71 tour and hung out at the band’s chateau during the Exile on Main Street sessions before he was kicked out.
Why mention the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons in a Deadstring Brothers’ review? Because it is hard not to think of them when listening to the Deadstrings’ music. Kurt Marschke, the founder and remaining member of the Detroit/Nashville band, sings with a reedy twang and cadence that strongly recalls Mick Jagger’s country crooning. It’s a comparison that he openly acknowledges, on this CD, as he proclaims, “they say I sound just like the Stones/So I’m giving them this song,” in the feisty track “Long Lonely Ride.”
If the Deadstring Brothers’ earlier records were rambunctious affairs dosing rock ‘n’ roll riffs with touches of twang (more “Honky Tonk Woman”, than “Country Tonk”), they have unplugged this time around. Their fifth album, Cannery Row, mines an acoustic-based sound that holds the laidback air of the Great West. The whine of the pedal steel and harmonica couple with roadhouse piano and soothing organ lines to create a sepia, dusty vibe, best represented on tunes such as “Like A California Wildfire,” “Talkin’ With A Man In Montana” and the title track (which shares its title with John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel set in Central California).
The CD comes off as something of a transitional effort as Marschke and his latest band of “Brothers” create music that mixes older Deadstring elements with newer ones. The Stones influence remains (traces of “Sweet Virginia,” “Dead Flowers” and other “County Honk”-style tunes surface on the album), but it isn’t as predominant a presence. Pete Finney’s pedal steel and dobro work injects a strong country-rock foundation, while keyboardist Mike Webb’s presence is particularly welcome. There is a bit of Garth Hudson and even Bob Andrews (in his Brinsley Schwarz pub-rocking days) to his organ playing, while his roadhouse piano enlivens tracks like “Lucille’s Honky Tonk.” Their performances bring a refreshing quality to this Deadstring Brothers’ disc.
Admirable too is how album balances the languidly paced numbers (like the poignant title track) with several foot-stompers (“It’s Morning Irene,” for example, features Marschke’s impressive finger-picking guitar work) while Marschke’s impassioned vocals (“Talkin’ With A Man In Montana” is a good case in point) add weight to the typically relaxed musical performances. Although this disc won’t make folks forget Marschke’s Stones-isms, Cannery Row definitely makes for a pleasurable ride across dirt-road Americana.