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America, meet your roots

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The sepia-toned, poverty-stricken paradise in the songs of most Americana artists today has little literary direction, other than to charm the listener with vignettes quaint and country. This music only reflects a cultural obsession — reactive to our crisp modern times — with all things rural and out-of-date and dirty, and with notable exception rarely goes beyond the merely descriptive. All the world is a rotten-floored front porch where simple passes for subtle, and true coarse human anxiety is scarcely explored or wrestled with.

The shelves are flooded with craftily costumed artists photographed in boots and lace, pondering something folksy on a lonely haystack with guitar and tambourine. The saddest thing about this market-driven approach to indie roots music is that it has roped in a lot of brilliantly talented musicians. It's certainly safe to say that most roots artists with record contracts are, themselves, impressively skilled on their instruments and backed by musicians of the highest caliber.

But the soul of American roots music, draped as it is in beautiful melody, has been the close relationship of that music to its words. Somewhere the imagery of music has lost touch with its roots. America's is a music built not only on lovestruck loneliness, but on social oppression, economic strife, crude sexual expression, common humanity and political dissent. These are the elements of American life — all still present today — that gave rise to the first blues, folk, country and rock. Corporate-driven artists shy from these themes, gilding a rich musical tradition in empty showmanship and forgettable verse.

Roger Hoover strode quietly onto the scene in Akron, Ohio, about five years ago, with two albums (“Golden Gloves” and “Panic Blues”) whose musical breadth alone should have immediately placed him and his band, the Whiskeyhounds, on touring gigs with the brightest Americana stars. It is likely the case that the Whiskeyhounds — they've since changed their name to Magpies — were lost in a crowd of beggars at the resurgent roots music banquet. What listeners could have heard in these albums was tremendous potential for lyrical complexity, which is the last distinguishing honor to be attained by artists in any crowded musical genre. Regardless, these were the Whiskeyhounds who chanced down to Arkansas and established a connection that would eventually lead to lasting musical relationships with such Arkansas artists as Hayes Carll, Cory Branan and Graham Wilkinson.

“I first met Conway after our drummer booked a house show there for the Whiskeyhounds,” says Hoover. Through a serendipitous punk-rock connection with Matt White (then a Conway kid spending his spare time building a music scene in the driest of college towns, now the booker/manager of Little Rock music institution White Water Tavern) the Whiskeyhounds made it down to Conway from Akron, Ohio.

“We pulled in the drive in a rusted-out Ford van with trailer in tow,” Hoover remembers. “We were instantly greeted with brotherly hugs and heartfelt conversations by people we'd never met. From that moment on I have felt accepted. I felt accepted as a writer, as a friend, and a citizen of Conway.”

Since then, Hoover has developed a fan base in Central Arkansas that, he says, easily trumps any reception in his home state. Arkansas is clearly an artistic inspiration for the band: “Little Rock and Conway are very similar to Cleveland and Akron, Ohio,” he says. “Since I'm from Ohio I have a much more romantic view of Arkansas than maybe you have. I see a land rich in folklore and farming soil that sprouted small American cities with budding intellectual centers. Not far from the metropolis of Little Rock you'll find the Buffalo River and the Ozarks — two places that are very mystic in my eyes. There seems to exist a constant struggle between the old and the new.”

After building a familial rapport with the Conway contingent, Hoover's band underwent some personnel rearrangement which resulted, ultimately, in the creation of “Jukebox Manifesto,” one of the finest roots records since Ryan Adams' “Heartbreaker” or Gillian Welch's “Time: The Revelator.” “Jukebox Manifesto” sees Hoover's poetic tales matched with music that fully illuminates their literary panache. Songs from the first half of “Jukebox” (“Cobblestone Road,” “Stone on the Ground”) are instrumentally full, soaring sing-alongs that turn whole crowds into chanting vagabonds: “Here comes the night, and I'm feelin' like a pistol-whipped criminal… from dusk 'til dawn, we ride alone!”

The real gems on “Jukebox,” though, are the lonelier tales that exist on a quieter plane, seeming chapters in some funereal saga of unrelenting existential angst and personal tragedy. The band's ability to pin down stark, gothic musical settings that not only emphasize Hoover's words, but affect their meaning, really sets “Jukebox” apart from Hoover's previous work. “Down By the Riverside” makes personal regret sound pastorally nostalgic: “Should time stand still, hindsight obscure, I'll meet you where the mountainside meets the water.”

But “Drifter” is the album's piece de resistance, taking a jilted lover's confession of stubborn loneliness to filmic heights: “Even though it's a club I used to play, they don't let me walk in for free anymore.” The album winds down with three quiet, wintry odes and closes with a stiff-lipped dirge that leaves a knot in your throat.

From day one of their encounter, White has been singing the Magpies' praises to anyone who will listen: “Make no mistake about it — Roger Hoover is one of the best songwriters in the country today. The Magpies are our absolute favorite band to book at the White Water Tavern, and getting to see them live is an absolutely moving and, if you're like me, a potentially life-changing event.

“Justin Gorski is one of the most electrifying live players I've ever seen. He is a wild genius, a classically trained madman,” says White. “You never know what he's going to do next. It almost feels dangerous watching him play the piano.”

In live performances Gorski takes center stage, and his playing appears to be the musical version of speaking in tongues. In the middle of a perfectly fine foot-tapping little tune, Gorski will snatch from the vaudevillian ether a rolling piano solo, transforming the band from any rock quartet to the sweatiest electric minstrel show this side of Sunday morning.

The name change from Roger Hoover and the Whiskeyhounds to the Magpies (tagged, as well, as “indiefolkrockrevivalists”) in effect decentralizes Hoover and draws focus to the more collaborative work their music-making process is now. Their new album, “Eastern Standard Time” (due out May 15), is completely a collective effort. “Justin is there with an unlimited knowledge of composition to help further along the song,” Hoover says. “From there we take it to the rhythm section, where we round out what tempo best suits the story.”

Where “Jukebox Manifesto” had a cohesive dynamic with highs and lows that combined to create an album that moved fluidly from song to song, “Eastern Standard Time” punches each song into your head. Hoover's stories, paired with piano, organ and accordion with effortless-seeming brilliance, make for tales as visually depictive as they are audibly wrenching.

“Elizah Jane” portrays an epic journey to post-Katrina New Orleans to retrieve voodoo cures for a dying pregnant lover whose ultimate death is heralded by stabbing guitar and twisting, morbid organ. “Girl on the Hill,” another highlight, is a paean to a mute muse in the grandest shape-note tradition. Aside from these, the album keeps up a rowdy pace and doesn't so much revisit Highway 61 as repave it with broken bottles, forgotten promises and dead lovers. The bulk of “Eastern Standard Time” is an exhilarating mix of swampy church house testimonials doused in whiskey, along with some of the best fist-pumping arena-style anthems in 20 years. The best thing about this album is, unmistakably, how well it is going to translate to live performance.

Just in their last two albums, the Magpies have rounded out a more contoured geography of American songscape than most artists could manage in an entire career. Hoover refuses to grant name or boundary to this world, though.

“The characters in my songs exist only in the eyes of people willing to see them,” he says. “I just so happen to have been told their stories and have taken artistic freedom to embellish them accordingly. Since I am the only singer of my collected embellished story songs, these characters feel like they exist in a separate world.

“I have not intentionally set out to create an alternate America,” says Hoover. “I'm trying to expose the real America.” Certainly the Magpies have hewn out of life's turmoil a depiction of American life that, real or imagined, confounds all the clichés of the American roots industry: It achieves timelessness without resorting to tired, antiquarian romanticism, and reestablishes the vital connection between our varied roots music traditions and the human stories they tell.

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