Rylan Brooks, led by truck-driving songwriter/vocalist/guitarists Nate Rylan and Chris Brooks, aims to deliver songs influenced by “the sound of 60’s & 70’s country music… when Country was COUNTRY.” Their particular approach to the genre is a mix of Outlaw with “some funny” and “some ugly.” As Brooks explains, “Look, we all go through the same sh*t — might as well sing and laugh about it.”
In short, they’re doing a comedic send-up of the genre, while using it as a vehicle to express (sometimes) more serious, umm… desires and observations, let’s say. They’re not the first to attempt that balancing act, obviously. Other performers who have ventured down the same road include The Yayhoos, Bobby Bare Jr. (not to mention his dad, the author of that remarkable 70s country hit “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life”) and, going back a bit further, the sadly forgotten Nat Stuckey (who penned such classics as “Sweet Thang,” “Plastic Saddle,” “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line” and “Pop a Top”). You can probably think of many others.
And then there are the many pop-rock stars who have attempted, for better or worse, to embrace the country genre for an album or two, either just for yucks or in a serious attempt to mine that genre’s rich history. In this category we have Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, Van Morrison’s Pay the Devil and such Rolling Stones classics as “Far Away Eyes,” “Dead Flowers,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Country Honk,” and (in a less jokey vein) “Wild Horses.”
As Mick Jagger once said, “I love country music, but I find it very hard to take it seriously.” However, to pull off parodying country from within, as it were, you actually have to take it quite seriously. There are four essential requirements for this, it seems to me:
1. You have to be serious musicians who have studied the genre and genuinely “get it” — and by “it” I mean not just all the essential licks and tricks, but the bleeding heart and soul of the thing.
2. You gotta sing every song, however silly or over the top its premise or lyrics, like you truly mean it. Acting like you don’t really buy into the genre or that you only half believe what you’re singing about it is a sure path to a half-assed one-off.
3. You absolutely must and cannot sneer at, condescend to or otherwise mock your audience, though you certainly CAN make fun of yourself — unless your adopted persona too closely resembles your audience. This ties in with:
4. You have to avoid the winky-wink gesture of knowing, self-congratulatory metacommentary at all costs. Either you stand and deliver, or you don’t — you can’t try to smirkingly save face as you’re doing it.
A good example of a successful venture that meets all those requirements is Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen’s classic 1972 release Hot Licks, Cold Steel, and Trucker’s Favorites. I remember being blown away the first time I heard that album as a punk and New Wave-loving teenager. From the first (title) song’s opening line — “It’s Saturday night and I just got paid” — through to the album’s finale — a live, rockin’ version of “Tutti Fruitti” — I found myself continuously amused AND enchanted. That treasured piece of vinyl remains in rotation to this day.
It wasn’t just the hilarious, over-the-top lyrics of songs like “Truck Drivin’ Man,” “Kentucky Hills of Tennessee,” “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” and “Mama Hated Diesels” that got me, though. It was the fact that the Commander and his band — most notably, “The Titan of The Telecaster” Bill Kirchen and pedal steel player Bobby “Blue” Black — played those songs like they absolutely OWNED them. Their playing conveyed both total conviction and mastery of the musical models (in this case, a mix of the Bakersfield sound with cheesy AM radio-friendly trucker’s favorites) they chose to mimic.
In short, it was clear that they were parodying the country genre because they LOVED it, rather than because they reviled it or thought it was beneath them.
Based on the evidence provided by their debut album Half Wild and their recent performance at the Colonial Theater, I’d say Rylan Brooks absolutely get all of the above, and understand how to walk that razor-thin line between inspired parody and a passing, insincere schtick.
As they showed at the Colonial, these guys are all-in. Though Brooks and Rylan both started out as rock musicians — the former releasing a solo album featuring members of Hop Along and the latter having played in the Grunge band Early Ape as well as a “psych wave project” in Nashville (with fellow Philadelphian Matt Kass) called NIGHTMØDE — they’ve clearly studied and lived the Country & Western Gold catalog. Since they met while hauling loads up and down I-95, perhaps it’s not surprising that they gravitated to the country side of the dial while out on the road trying to avoid smokies.
“1950’s rock n’ roll moves me more than most any other music and is often indistinguishable from Country music,” as Rylan notes. “As musicians and songwriters, Chris and I don’t hear the big differences between genres and we really prefer not to think about music in that way too much. Good songs are good songs.”
On the other hand, in revealing some of his biggest Country influences, Rylan adds, “One of the best things about Country music is that it has already incorporated so many styles from the American experience. Our go-to influences, in addition to many classic Country greats, are artists who stick out like sore thumbs and are hard to define in terms of a genre, like Roger Miller, Buddy Holly, Shel Silverstein, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Reed, and even Harry Nilsson.”
What Rylan Brooks adds to that mix and what sets them apart from other Country and Americana acts is the good-natured, low-falutin’ humor that drives their clever, congenial tunes. Perhaps it’s just me, but that humorous touch seems to be a rare commodity in those competing musical communities these days.
It also helps that Brooks and Rylan have a kick-ass band that incorporates some of Philly’s (and Nashville’s) finest musicians. The band at the Colonial featured 40-year music veteran Bob Beach on harmonica; Will Brown (of local rock band Deadfellow) on electric guitar; Nashville based multi-instrumentalist Andy Keenan (Sweetback Sisters, Calexico, War and Treaty) on pedal steel; Fred Berman (Tommy Conwell, G. Love, Mutlu, Schoolly D) on drums; and John Cunningham (who has backed Jim Boggia, Pete Donnelly, No Good Sister and heads his own group, Needlefish) on bass.
That all-star cast’s support was right on the money throughout Rylan Brooks’ short set at Phoenixville’s stately Colonial Theatre on March 22, where they opened for the illustrious Delbert McClinton and his band the Self-Made Men.1 RB jumped right in with a tip of their caps to their truck-driving pasts with “Friend of the Road,” a rocker that saw Brown and Beach cut loose on lead guitar and harmonica respectively. A foot-stomping slice of life from the point of view of a trucker trying hard to keep on schedule despite having multiple encounters with various “friends” along the route, the tune features lines like “Turn off the radio, come in from the cold / You know I’m always pullin’ over for a friend of the road” and the chorus “I got eighteen tons of all kinds of fun / I got that monkey on my back ridin’ shotgun.”
Brooks took a turn at the mic for the humorously autoerotic “Nobody Loves Me Like Myself,” which got a rise out of the mostly older crowd at The Colonial. I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves:
Nobody loves me like myself, I’ve got that special touch
Nobody loves me like myself, when it comes to me, I can’t get enough
I’ve been around the world, known a lot of pretty women
But the best kind of lovin’ is the kind that’s God-given
Nobody loves me like myself, so mama just let me be
The protoganist’s romantic adventures — which explain his preference for self-sufficiency — involve encounters with one woman with a “loaded 5 – 7” and another whose husband wields a Louisville Slugger. Suffice to say, by the time the outro’s key change kicked in, the crowd was chuckling and singing along merrily.
Rylan took the lead with his smooth western crooner vocals on “Milan,” a newer ballad that hasn’t yet been recorded. It’s the tale of a liar who confesses to his would-be lover that
These words that roll off my silver tongue
They don’t mean a goddamn thing
So I’ll wrap my arms around you
And say that it’s all right
Well it don’t mean I love you
It just means that I might
The explanation for his shortcomings in the truth-telling department is rooted in his clichéd, fictional existence, it seems: “For I am just a cowboy / And this is just a song.” While this might seem to directly violate requirement #4 above, Rylan (like the protagonist) sings “the words so sweetly / Till you feel ‘em in your bones” that it’s hard to doubt the sincerity of either. In other words, the song’s complete adherence to requirement #2 counteracts the conundrum its self-referentiality presents with #4. In short, the melody and presentation were powerful enough to allay the qualms of any doubting Thomases, as the audience’s hearty applause attested.
“Living for Today” is a hilarious compendium of redneck clichés (“Pulled the truck up on the yard… Trailer’s fallin’ down, I’m hungry”) grounded by a steady alternating bass line that builds to the rousing chorus, “Well, fuck it — let’s get outta town / Find the reason on the way / Let’s forget about tomorrow / Start livin’ for to-day.” Beach’s harmonica and Keenan’s pedal steel licks nicely complemented Brook’s rugged, raspy vocals on this one. And though the specifics of the characters’ predicament may be a bit white-trashy, the general sentiment is universal: Who hasn’t yearned to skip town and leave one’s troubles behind for a few days?
The slow-burning ballad “Firewood” begins propitiously with the lines “You had nowhere to go / Those fishnets won’t keep you warm when it snows / You saw me comin’ from miles away / Lonesome as a widow on Valentine’s Day.” The appropriately schmaltzy musical accompaniment (think deep B-bends on the electric guitar, weepy pedal steel slides and moaning vocal harmonies) sets the stage nicely for this sad tale about a barroom encounter (the hero finds his counterpart at the bar “tradin’ winks for beers”) that climaxes with the tragic- triumphant refrain: “I shed more tears than any man should / When you split me in two, just like fire-ire… wood.”
The band finished with the lead song off Half Wild, the predictably ominous and cinematic (in a good way) “Gunslinger.” Beach’s long bends on the harmonica set the perfect spaghetti-western backdrop for lines like “‘Cause I got a trigger and a mean right hand / Shoot first, aim later, it’s my only plan.” The song lifts as the second verse begins: “Could you hold my scalp while I cool my brain?” It’s “one more headache in a life gone wrong” Brooks rasped while the band chugged like a big rig on a ribbed road behind him. “You’ll find me out on the road / If you’re lookin’ for a gunslinger.”
By this point Rylan Brooks had the crowd fully in hand, and their set ended to uproarious applause. Unfortunately, as the opening act subject to time restrictions they didn’t get to play such zingers from Half Wild as “Last Night I Lied to Jesus,” “Save the Last Ugly One for Me,” or “The Day I Showed You,” but I’m sure the crowd would have eaten those up, too.
Luckily Rylan Brooks have more songs in that vein up their sleeves (hehe). They’re recording a record with Dean Miller, son of the legendary Roger Miller, in Nashville in July and will be doing several dates with Dallas Moore in May, including at 118 North in Wayne, PA on May 3, Brooklyn’s Skinny Dennis on May 4, and then back in Philly at the Dawson Street Pub on May 5. You should check them out if you’re looking for some good ol’ Country Gold sounds and hilarious stage banter — these guys are the real deal, even if it’s delivered with a wink and a gap-toothed grin.
1 I reviewed Delbert McClinton & the Self-Made Men’s recent show in Wilmington, Delaware, which was similar in terms of both its set list and amazing display of top-notch musicianship. That review can be found at: https://americanahighways.org/2019/01/02/show-review-delbert-mcclintons- roadhouse-blues-energized-crows-at-wilmington-delawares-grand-opera- house/