The Matchsellers' Inheritance
The duo's new album manages to be wonderfully explorative without sacrificing any sacred traditions.
For years, I took the voices and culture of working Americans for granted and sought to generally distance myself from my origin’s heritage as much as possible, but I’ve since realized that I couldn’t have done so without absolute certainty that country, bluegrass, and folk music were stubborn as State highway ditch-rooted fescue blades: omnipresent forces of Midwestern nature that’d secured their invincibility with the simple superiority of their belonging. While this conclusion is true enough for the time being, it’s quite independently so of their worth or necessity. In such conditional blindness, I’ve simply proven my sensibilities to be (predictably in the case of my seniors) not exempt. This truth is noteworthy only because of its potential to spare others the embarrassment of blatant ignorance to their own privilege. That said, I would suggest that you engage this music sincerely for a moment for your own sake, regardless of your own convictions regarding country music, Indiana, plaid, pickup trucks, the end of the world, or the proper noun for “cantaloupe.”
As young adults, even those folks who’ve remained resolutely country-minded found themselves trivializing the name of the titanic Dallas-born trio The Dixie Chicks not out of half-assed iconoclasm, but because their brand was so cleverly immune to irony. You thought you were proving yourself of a higher caliber of discernment, but mocking goddesses only paraded your ignorance. In my teen rebellion against the culture of my rural origin, I scoffed at their mention for a while, somehow oblivious to my blatant hypocrisy. Thanks to my older sisters and their automobiles, I spent before and after elementary school days absorbing thousands of hours’ worth of late-90s/early-oughts Pop Country radio. Two summers ago, I returned to this library at length for the first time in 10 years and found my heart completely vulnerable to its related memories and my mind consistently flabbergasted by the oomph of the composition that defines the genre’s last mainstream hurrah.
The original three Chicks – Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Marty Maguire - are still very much alive, kicking, and radio-playing. They even “returned from exile” with a real international tour in 2016. (I regret little more in my adult life than missing the opportunity to see them.) According to a fascinating November 2015 analysis in The Guardian, their 2003 denouncement of President George W. Bush cost them serious cred among their audience, but Johnny Cash likely harbored similar sentiments, Stephen Morrissey is… not straight, the most worthwhile current country sounds from my teenage home are composed and performed by a trans woman, and the staple tunes from the genre’s most chaste personalities are often just about sex. No reasonable individual would still cite this incident in an argument opposing the essential legacy of these three miraculously talented women.
From a pop perspective at least, The Dixie Chicks are almost certainly the penultimate expression of country music as a technical and emotional exercise. Their extraordinary musicianship and prodigally antecedent mastery of suave sincerity represented the absolute peak of pop country’s untenable relationship with the American working class in one hell of a 21st-century-breaching last hurrah that still brings tears of pride to many an eye. However, the hysterical backlash of the greater working people personified in part by Donald Trump’s presidency is a last sure indication of the mainstream’s final estrangement from all distillations of rural culture. In the coming years, I fear the toiling masses will be left only with less and less authentic, more and more suburban bastardizations of their music as the last superficial delusions of condescending affection from the middle class fade, and the enterprise dies. What does survive will “graduate” (retire) to Folk (for white performers,) and further strengthen the Blues resurrection (for everyone else.) That said, it’s hard to find anyone who’s comfortable mourning the loss openly after acceptance has progressively set in – there’s simply nowhere else to go, and its aging icons have been in desperate need of retirement throughout the Information Age.
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Even if I’d had the moderate exposure from my current perch in the midst of the notoriously grass-roots nature of Portland’s Folk/Blues scene, 2000 miles west, I would have still been totally blindsided by my incidental introduction to The Matchsellers, two years ago. One needn’t harbor any presumptions about the relationship between Kansas City violinist/fiddler Julie Bates and Hoosier blues guitarist, Andrew Morris – they’re just about the cutest pair you’ll ever see, couple’s act or not (it’s less relevant than you’d think, and none of our business.) They’re also extremely talented and genuinely authoritative world-class musicians with plenty of authentic country mileage who exude a proud air of warm, confident serenity occupying the bluegrass sphere. After happening upon their set at Columbia’s faux-speakeasy in Summer 2016, I was at once charmed and impressed by the pervasive magnitude of the ethereal aura that followed them, especially after our brief post-performance conversation. I’m ninety percent sure they came without a mobile phone between them carrying a wicker basket full of CDs and matchbooks, and shucks… I do believe we’ve been doing this whole thing wrong, all along.
I bought a copy of Kosciusko County then and there and played the shit out of it the next summer, wandering aimlessly around Missouri with my best friend, revisiting (and occasionally disrupting) the resolute peace of the tiny communities I grew up orbiting. On our way to the Hannibal – Huckleberry’s Fictional home/the great Mississippi’s tired tourism machine – we just left it on repeat. As a soundtrack to such sentimental pursuits, a central trio of back-to-back tracks proved especially potent, beginning with “Mentone (The 3,000 lb Egg)” - the work’s nostalgic, tear-jerking sole instrumental. Production isn’t low-fidelity, but appropriately honest – no amount of expensive mastering would be capable of compressing the essence of a surprise late-night live performance from The Matchsellers’ work into a digital audio file, anyway.
Bates’ fiddling is an impossibly rare pleasure – the real type of sawing that mystically manages to erase one’s inhibitions and sense of civic responsibility when tearing about the borders of quiet row-crop plots, leaving long-lived lesions of billowing limestone high above numbered county roads at ninety miles-per-hour. Succeeding the distant, eye-misting cruise of the 1.5-ton Egg, “Driving Escort” is a masterpiece (naturally) of this raucous realm.
Driving down the road with a yellow light on top of my truck / Going down to Vincennes earning my sixty bucks.
Add the accompaniment of Morris’ obviously-fathomless relationship with the guitar, and the result nails a select truth without any hint of prudishness. At sufficient volume, “Muskmelon Breakdown” becomes a beautifully-harmonious catalyst of fast, loose, maniacal, hilarious energy that’s sure to land you in a ditch, but you’ll still be laughing your ass off by the time you’re pulling clay clumps and waist-high fescue blades from your steaming radiator. Kosciusko County isn’t an innovative record by any critical instrumentation, but I’d do best to keep my sun-faded, skip-worn copy readily at hand for the next time I find myself on a fresh gravel road, whenever that may be.
For the last five years, all we said was goodbye I said it again, it was the fifth time
I took your word and did what I thought was best I took your word and went 600 miles west
That’s it, then – we’ve got The Matchsellers pretty well figured for either wannabe(?) or reformed(?) yahoos of their own design; charming, dusty novelties who chose a folly destiny of toiling their craft for none but a seasonal dozen acres of white, sweating State Fair flesh. Obviously, they’re meant for us sophisticated, globetrotting Winners to collect like thrift store antiques on our way down the interstate. Their time is ours to book for nothing on our mediocre “speakeasy’s” waxy new stage; to post on an Instagram story, to Tweet in an easy compartmentalization of their quaint displacement from our time, deep in the dusty recesses of our collections for no good bargain, where they’ll fall comfortably in line as our predictable and willing country servants should an opportunity happen upon us to show a stranger how interesting, dynamic, and worldly we are.
As a displaced (and formerly ex-communicated) yokel, I’ve often been astonished by how easy it is to discard American folk music for huge swaths of time unless it expresses some unignorable sort of spectacular torment. My own failure to recognize the value in this one until I became separated and homesick was an overtly foolhardy cliché (though quite predictable of like privilege,) but I can’t help but wonder: is it unavoidable? Of course, the process is necessary for ‘class justice’ – one might even call it a natural law of sorts – and in the case of The Matchsellers, there’s hardly a struggle to communicate emotionally. For a real music scholar, though, it’s surely worth asking of those voices who know: do the oppressed, destitute, and hope-impoverished people of this country still rely on bluegrass, or has it been replaced for them?
The abstraction of the phrase “good surprise” had plummeted from our collective vocabulary at a record-demolishing velocity in the interim, but this past spring’s release of Bluegrastronauts hit me squarely upside the skull again, stirring a solid half hour of hysterical, shrieking psychosis. I assumed the worst… Dear God, what has the internet forced upon that sweet, rootsy duo?! – and was immediately compelled to drop everything and listen.
Hoosiers, we have a problem. What the fuck is this album, exactly? A nonchalant, apparently oblivious challenge to every assumption you could possibly arrive with. It’s safe to suppose “Bluegrastronauts” refers to its departure from the rest of their discography – from smack dab in Indiana’s center to the goddamned Beta Quadrant, the two managed to stupefyingly ace a theme most comfortable residents of their bluegrass sphere would take care to avoid leaving up on the kitchen whiteboard – even tackling apocalypse with regal serenity. At first glance, I was sure that copious soft glow had to either be the false product of my own insanity, or a deliberate attempt to alienate the sum of their audience in a single crises of identity. In fact, The Matchsellers had pulled off yet another especially-sparse artistic miracle and harnessed their creative restlessness to propel their departure from the elderly genre’s pretensions without spilling a single drip of their secret sauce. It’s not a concept album (thank God,) but doesn’t wander in any disparaging sense, either.
Earl Scruggs in a spaceship on his way to Mars Pickin' away on the banjo at 100,000 miles an hour Bill Monroe in a rocket, see the look on his face it's mighty dark to travel when you're in outer space
Name-dropping four bluegrass legends within the number 1 album-titled introductory track is the pair’s single self-conscious acknowledgment of visiting folk fanatics: this CD looks crazy, but we know what we’re doing – and Kansas City’s mention accredits the locale of the following entirely Missouri-made production. Indeed, in the WhoDoneIts, you’ll see The HillBenders’ Chad Graves layed em’ down in Springfield, and Johnny Kenepaske’s Dead Horse Sound Company spread em’ around in the Heart of America, itself. Missourian musicians especially should take note of these names: the offerings may have diversified since my day, but sound talent like this is difficult to come across, even within explosive college towns. Cutting two live acoustic tracks per performer – four in total – while expecting to retain any subsequent control over the behavior of either unwanted or subject sound is as difficult as any other circumstance you’ll encounter in studio production at this level. I know this much (but little more in that direction): real sound control is simply too tedious to bear for monomiking rascals with GarageBand. Now, having lost or been estranged from any remotely-professional sound reproduction equipment, Bluegrastronauts sounds as balanced and polished as my wired Apple earbuds could ever convey.
In shared verses, Julie and Andrew’s charmed harmonies are separated beautifully about the listener without inducing a sense of lateral imbalance when one of them sings alone. (Admittedly, I don’t exactly know how it’s accomplished.) No single personality in the record’s toolset – guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass, or dobro steps over any other.
I have no idea who’s listening, but I’m positive their numbers should be multiplying by a hundredfold very quickly, filling especially with all of ye who feel abandoned by all authentic American representation. They shouldn’t ever fill up stadiums or establishment radiowaves, nor should their art invite extensive pretentious dissection, but they will be adored.
It’s a quintessential manner of Country Boy pride to whip the middle class’s condescension right back around with a classic demonstration: Oh, you thought I didn’t know about that? You thought I couldn’t do that? Well, of course I can! I’m just not particularly interested. The Matchsellers, though, have attained a much higher tier of comfort and confidence in their own skin.