Day Fifty-Two – Needle Scratch: The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt

Yep Roc Records ■ YEP-2015

Released October 26, 1999
(Vinyl released December 11, 2012)

Produced by Byron Mckay and John Howie, Jr.
Engineered by Byron McKay
Mastered by Tim Harper

Side One: Side Two:
  1. If Only You Were Mine
  2. Just Someone I Used to Know
  3. We Had It All
  4. Suppose Tonight Could Be Our Last
  1. Counting the Hours
  2. (I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again
  3. One Paper Kid

This will mark the second time I’ve fiddled with the alphabet in writing here, but I think my reasons have been solid in their non-arbitrary nature at both times–last time, I was covering an album on its release, and this time, well, I’d just been hoping to see a Two Dollar Pistols vinyl release to put up here anyway, and within days of stating this “aloud” this appeared before me for order, which I proceeded to place immediately (of course!). In and of itself, that would be a bit of a cheat as there are other albums I’ve deliberately looked up to keep my end-of-letter lists short, but this one is a release by someone who has been open and supportive of both of my attempts at writing, including this very blog. That, too, wouldn’t necessarily dictate shifting the order of writing, but the fact that it’s his birthday? That, I can make an exception for.

In my time back at Borders, one of the mangers I worked under was a guy named Gerald, whose name will crop up here and there throughout this particular set of writings (as it often did at my prior blog). He was largely responsible for the musical guests we occasionally had in the store, the curation of our rather extensive local music section, and records himself. As a result, in the early days of my time there, I managed to see Lost in the Trees before they apparently got indie-big (I still have a signed copy of their first EP, which makes reference, as many signatures I have do, to my hat and their appreciation of it–don’t ask me why that happens. It just does.), and scattered other bits from a local scene that has had nationwide fame (or at least heavy regional) at various times over the years.

One of the first bands to tromp across the total-absence-of-a-stage while I was there was, of course, the Two Dollar Pistols. At the time, they were promoting the release of 2007’s Here Tomorrow, Gone Today and my scheduling for the day meant I only ended up catching half the set myself (though I spent a good deal of my lunch break listening to them when I heard them). I picked that album up, blissfully unaware of anything older, newer, or otherwise–I was not yet too deep into my music collecting phase (the difference then to now is admittedly astonishing), and beginning my lengthy movie-focused phase of life.

As time went on, I began to see Pistols vocalist/guitarist John Howie, Jr. in the store regularly just picking things up the way everyone else did–a few CDs here, a few books there, and we spoke a handful of times as time went on. But it was around the time the store was closing that we probably had our first most direct conversation, as I mentioned appreciating his presence and performances in the store, and he responded with what might have been the only sincere and sympathetic comment I heard in all those few frantic weeks. Most wouldn’t even consider the approaching unemployment, while others would act as if it had no relation to their ensuing demands for better discounts (which were nothing new anyway)–but he actually turned it around and thanked us as a store for being good to him.

I last ran into him (in person, at least!) when he was playing with his new band, The Rosewood Bluff, at Schoolkids in Raleigh for Record Store Day last year, not too long before I ended up moving out of the area. We caught up a bit on what had gone on since the store closing (briefly, mind you), and I got to catch the performance they put on that day (which I strongly recommend as an experience, if you have the chance).

It’s an odd thing, really–I grew up riding a bus to school, and on it was unable to avoid the music that played on country radio for most of those years, all of it the middle phase of modern country in the sense it is most commonly employed. It rarely did much for me, though I never forgot the words of a music teacher when I was youngest–almost anything becomes familiar and earwormy after you hear it enough, and a song here or there would appeal, but largely I was not too big on it. As someone who, especially in those years, did not much do exploratory listening, it was all I understood country to be. Sure, my dad had no taste for that sound, but did (and does) have a taste for country all the same–it’s just the kind you’d hear in the decades prior, largely, and in the nascent (eventually growing, now rather large) “alternative country” scene. It was probably dabbling in Lyle Lovett (thanks to my father, as well as the further endorsement of a guy I used to work with who swung more to the Robert Earl Keen side of that former roommate pairing) that opened me up most distinctly to hearing country outside what I understood it to be.

The Two Dollar Pistols were probably what broke me most completely out of that mindset, as I detected none of the glaring exceptions that would come with Lovett (by his third album no less– Lyle Lovett and His Large Band), just something that sounded purely like country. Now, perhaps–perhaps where we have “country-fried rock”, they were “rock-seared country”, but lyrically, musically, tonally–there was no question about where the Two Dollar Pistols came from. Indeed, when I pulled out a copy of You Ruined Everything, I was accused of listening to music that was not “me” but my father’s. Some have learned by now that it’s best not to think one has a handle on my tastes (especially their breadth), but once in a while someone is still surprised to find I like something.

Because most people I know come from similar backgrounds in understanding what “country music” is, or even know the older stuff and automatically run from the twang (to be fair, if you don’t stop and listen, it does leave a mind stuck in the modern precept instead–the recent stuff did, of course, come out of those sounds), I know that, like all of my metal, this is going to be a hard sell for some people I know. Probably a lot of them. That, I suppose, is why the volume of background I include here–to really establish a human being in this (something I always find helpful in grasping a foreign sound), as well as clarify how I came to a place of appreciation that many wouldn’t (indeed, didn’t) expect of me, and so might not otherwise expect of themselves.

The EP (it’s just shy of 25 minutes overall) opens with one of the two songs John wrote with Tift, “If Only You Were Mine”. It’s a deliberately paced track, sawed in on the fiddle of Pistols alum Jon Kemppainen, with a bit of a waltz to the beat’s alternation of Ellen Gray’s bass and guitars (handled in acoustic form by our two vocalists), though it’s remains in 4/4. Howie’s is the first voice we hear, a confident and and fluid baritone, singing lyrics of the oppressive lost-love melodrama that country is most known for (and often fits the bill for Howie’s solo lyrics, as well). Greg Readling of Chatham County Line’s (more locals!) pedal steel wafts across the track, more subdued than the accents of Kemppainen’s more plaintive draws on his fiddle. At the halting chords of the chorus, Merritt’s voice joins John’s for a fantastic duet that balances his low-end rumble to her gentle and classic–in the Emmylou sense–vocals, which she uses fully alongside him as match rather than highlight or shadow. As you might expect, Tift takes on the second verse, but her voice takes on its own timbre and quality, not quite so high as she sings for the chorus’s blend, instead using those heights for emphasis.

Jack Clement’s “Just Someone I Used to Know” follows, driven by Readling’s pedal steel, and it’s more “complete” as a duet, Tift and John singing alongside each other, rendering the brave-faced sadness of un-admitted heartache with just the right tinge of regret and distant remembrance in their voices. John pulls at the pain as if straight from the gut, while Tift’s voice falters ever-so-slightly in its confident expression regularly, as if the proud declaration that she does not tell those looking at the photo of someone she “used to know” about how much that hurts is itself a reminder of the very pain she isn’t admitting. Michael Krause shines on a finger-picked out electric guitar solo that rolls around itself and tumbles downward at its end to make room for a more eased feature of Kemppainen’s fiddle. Maybe it’s having so many performances to draw from–George Jones, for whom John has opened, Emmylou Harris, to whom Tift has been compared, and even the duet from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton (who had a country-charts hit with it)–or maybe it’s because a cover allows for pure interpretation within a pre-defined space, some combination of the two, or plain old serendipity (maybe synchronicity?), but this might be their best vocals on the release.

An unidentified (but excellent, whoever it is!) harmonica and a sad set of fret-slides from Krause bring us into Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals’s “We Had It All” (perhaps most famously rendered by Waylon Jennings, but recorded by a slew of country stars, much like the prior track), which allows Tift the vocal spotlight, singing sadly of happy memories lost, full of, not regret or hurt so much as accepted blues. John joining for the phrase, “You and me we had it all”, and transitioning the next lines into his voice instead, his voice gentle and controlled but broken by that same loss, yet most confident as he sings, “You were the best thing in my life that I recall”. Their voices stay united after they again name what was lost, both voices reaching up to cry out for what is lost and can’t be regained, but is seen briefly in dreams. Their voices begin to soften and stumble–not in pitch, not in tempo, but in their strength–as they are lost to the remembrance of just how good times were. Krause’s following solo is not blazing, but moves a a greater clip, burning through it’s time with a different kind of fire. Do not miss out on their voices hesitating and indecisive at their last note, unsure whether to be peaceful in memory or sad at present, turning up and down and only briefly meeting.

George Jones’s actual songwriting (co-written by Melba Montgomery) appears in the next track, as Merritt and Howie tackle “Suppose Tonight Would Be Our Last”, a much more uptempo number after the rolling sadness that fills the middle of Side One. The more upbeat fiddle of Kemppainen defines the musical tone, even as the lyrics are not quite so upbeat. John and Tift match Kemppainen in this instead, performing more as musical duet than acting as those expressing the feelings personally–the kind of duet you’d expect to see two country stars turn and look at each other to sing onstage, thoughtful lyrics carrying themselves and unconcerned with the tune that carries them, which is more interested in being cheerful. David Newton’s drumming really shines here–almost brush-like restraint on the snares, and a momentary turn to a near-martial approach at the traded voices of the bridge. Our two vocalists also get a chance to show off their voices less as emotively determined than as instruments.

The second side starts with the second (and last) original the two put together for this release, Krause’s electric introducing us to “Counting the Hours”, which is largely a John Howie, Jr. performance as it starts, Tift mostly using her voice to accent his, which seems appropriate for the song’s construction–“It just seems to get harder to smile”, John sings alone, and the isolation of his voice in an album where it’s usually not alone underlines that difficulty perfectly, which means we’re completely ready for Tift to join him again for the chorus–and take over for the second verse. Unlike on his voice, she remains alone, vocally, for it–and this works because of something to do with how we hear female voices–whether it’s expectation, tradition, or some actual difference in the way we hear pitches, it functions as somewhat fragile, but fully realized in its isolation.

Charley Pride’s hit “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again” (written by Dallas Frazier and A.L. Owens) is the penultimate track on the release, and starts with harmonized guitar and fiddle, both of which disappear for Howie’s voice to ride alone with Gray’s bass and Newton’s drums. Readling weaves pedal steel in intermittently, but it is largely sparse until Tift’s subdued and quiet voice slips in beneath John’s for the song’s title, sounding even more as if she feels truth in “And I’m so afraid of losing you again”, his voice full and soaring through the chorus, while hers has the edge of fear in it, even as she, too, expands hers for those moments. When she takes on the second verse, her voice straddles the line between fragility and power, projecting and broad, but tinged with caution and that same fear in her harmonies. There’s a brilliant moment at the end, as they repeat that title, and it seems that Howie loses his confidence and Merritt regains hers.

The EP closes with a stunner–the Walter Martin Cowart-penned former Emmylou Harris/Willie Nelson duet, “One Paper Kid”. Largely acoustic guitars at a greater volume and fuller sound, Tift sings alone with the wisdom, confidence, and maturity of a life lived and a story told. Readling’s pedal steel is a gilding on the acoustics, John’s voice the supporting low-end to Tift’s dusty, advisory vocals. He bolsters the chorus, as she relents in her own performance to almost allow for a trade in emphasis, though they gradually grow together into a single voice, the song sad in a way that’s not quite that of the lost loves of the earlier ones, so much as one that elicits past memories, rather than describing them, fearing the loss of them, or reveling miserably within them. And then their voice just–hang, drifting off into solitude, rather than isolation or desolation, just a chosen moment away from everyone, not for relief, but out of necessity.

It’s difficult to impress upon anyone not interested in country how good this release is. These are excellent performances all around, but the taste in covers should indicate that already to the familiar, and continue the relative meaningless nature of it all to those who aren’t. I can’t claim to be a close friend of Mr. Howie’s, so I should hope this won’t be taken as any attempt to push for work on some level of extreme bias–I’m proudly open-minded, rather egalitarian in my tastes, but that doesn’t ever reflect a denial of poor quality, except insofar as the subjective stances that often stem from notions about particular kinds of vocal styling or instrumentation.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the three genres that suffer this most often have no time for each other, but can be boiled down to difficulties people experience with those three things? Whether it’s a growl, a twang, or a rhythmic orientation instead of a tonal one–sampling and electronic reproduction, aggression and speed, or distinctive and stylistically inseparable instruments and play-styles, metal, country, and rap inspire the most passionate defense, denials, refusals, and embraces?

I think that there’s a good chance this release could bridge the gap for some, though I know that pedal steel and fiddle can be Pavlovian stimuli for some, as they once were for me. But if you give the record time, sit and listen and find the threads of emotion and performance, particularly in that instrument we are almost all most readily drawn to (as we almost all have experience using our voice in some way, but have not all even touched guitars, drums, basses or othe instruments)–listen to John and Tift, and gather that there’s that sense of emotional gravitas infused with respect for tradition, a bit of a nudge or wink to the lyrical melodrama of country (which I don’t mean as unique–most stars of the past, at the least, also seemed to be aware of the depths and heights they aimed for, and embraced that happily).

Still, all else aside: Happy birthday, John!