What better than kicking off your Friday with some truly vintage country sounds? I fondly recall enjoying “Will I Learn To Love Again,” the debut album from Thomas Stajcer back in the summer of 2018, which saw the in-demand Halifax, NS studio engineer make a brief departure from his soundboard to step up to the microphone and lay down his own brand of old-school country music. Transitioning with ease between traditional country and new country (the cool ‘new’ country, lest you worry), Stajcer’s resulting ‘outlaw’ country offered listeners a fantastic piece of escapism, and earned the artist a Nova Scotia Music Award in the process.
When Thomas originally submitted his debut album to GDW for our consideration, I was sold just on seeing the influences he named alone – citing legends such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard – enough for a vintage country enthusiast like me to take notice. Fast forward back to the present, and Thomas is excited to release his sophomore album today, titled “Midwestern States,” another golden-era-of-country delight that continues where his first album left off. But while the debut album was fairly rooted in the traditional and new country genre, this latest offering finds the artist confidently expanding his repertoire and taking his music persona to a new level. Likened in tone to household names such as Sturgill Simpson and the late John Prine, I’m pretty sure that when Thomas reached out to me just a few weeks ago with news of this album, he knew he’d gain my attention by dangling such carrots in front of me. And, of course, it worked like a charm.
Breaking from the ‘live party’ atmosphere of his first album, “Midwestern States” instead offers a purposeful narrative broken up across an intentional set of recordings. Self-produced at Joel Plaskett’s New Scotland Yard studios in Dartmouth, NS, with this album, Thomas wants you to buckle up for his musical journey. “A friend of mine listened to four songs from the album and commented, ‘That’s four different types of country music!’,” he shares. “He didn’t even get to hear the Steve Earle-does-Nebraska epic that is the title track and closer of the record. Oh, he’s in for a doozy.” If you’re going to toss out the name Steve Earle, then I’m headed straight to that particular tune, which seems like a great place to start now that the seeds have been planted.
With a long, slow introduction from the organ, joined shortly afterward by acoustic guitar notes, “Midwestern States” quickly generates goosebumps as I encounter hints of “Copperhead Road” to start, moving to “Another Town” as it progresses (and yes, both are timeless Steve Earle compositions). “My train’s rolling slow, seat by the window / Catching glimpses of the great migration west / At the station, will you be waiting? / Is it too little too late? / Midwestern States / Midwestern States.” The gnarling, vocal intensity from Stajcer and matching instrumentation following these closing lines really does pay homage to his stated influence. “I try to capture the moments that teeter on the edge,” Thomas adds. “The ones that tell us who we are … and in Midwestern States, [we’re] out on a limb [asking] is it too little too late?”
The limited subject matter of country music songs has often been the butt of much humor over the years, providing fodder for jokes pertaining to drinking, lost love, and worse yet, the loss of the dog. But one of the funniest recent references I saw was about the rise of autonomous vehicles, and that it was only a matter of time before there was a country song where somebody’s truck up and leaves. I am not aware of any artist that has yet earned this distinction, at least until now, as Thomas delivers a tongue-in-cheek ditty, co-written with Mike T. Kerr, titled “Who Will Listen To Country Music When Trucks Drive Themselves.”
With some vintage rockabilly sounds, I soon draw comparisons to early Dwight Yoakam in style when I hear the distinct “Guitars, Cadillacs” guitar rings leading into the opening lines: “I had my thumb out in the wind / Filled my lungs with tar / The mountain ridges blurred my vision / I thought I’d gone too far / Then I saw the lights / Come over the crest / But there was no driver, an auto-rider / The big rig blew right past.” Thoughts of how the legendary George Jones could have totally made this fun tune one of his own soon consumes me, leading me to unexplainably recall that time back in the 1960s when Jones notoriously rode his lawnmower to the liquor store after his wife had hidden his car keys. I can’t speak for Stajcer maybe sharing the sentiment, but the subsequent lines that follow during this one sure support my convictions: “I squared away every drop of gas / That I could ever find / I know it’s time to put it behind me / Or change my mind / Oh, but up on the front of my ride-on mower / I nailed a Peterbilt badge / One last ride, my beer beside me / And radio strapped to the dash.”
Prior to giving this album a whirl, I was naturally curious to find the tracks in particular that share traits with the influences he alluded to in his correspondence, yet found myself digging deeper to try and uncover more. The combination of piano and mandolin during “After You’re Gone” certainly checks the ‘Sturgill Simpson’ box; one of those moments that teeter on the edge, which Stajcer describes as one where “we pull back the veil.” Simpson is also more of an outlaw within the country music scene, a self-classified ‘anarchist’ who is proud of his Kentucky roots, and whose sound has a strong 70s vibe. As for those Prine influences, “Spinning Dimes” is perhaps appropriate, complete with the steady ‘acoustic guitar around a campfire’ feel to it (hints of Conway Twitty in there too, perhaps?). Stajcer offers up vulnerability in spades here, starting out soft and slow, before cresting with strong harmonies and electric guitar rings. “I thought a lot about vulnerability and redemption and inner conflict when putting the finishing touches on the album,” Thomas shares. “Oh, sure it’s got the drinking and the heartbreak, but people are much more nuanced than that, right? We’ve got conflicting voices pulling us towards rejection or acceptance, towards ignorance or vulnerability, toward redemption.”
As for my own digging, I really do believe that there are many other contenders here for possible influences, even if this research is undertaken simply out of my own curiosity. For starters, “Lord, I’ve Tried” is vintage Hank Williams in sound and style, while “One Of Two Ways” has a definite Marty Robbins or Tom T. Hall aura (who we sadly lost recently) – this one also whisks you away to the late 60s, and takes delight in hogging my repeat button. The eerie whistling and low-end guitar twang found in “Lover, Beware” has a strong Duane Eddy feel, drawing comparisons to his version of Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders In The Sky” with the twang sticking around for the duration. And be sure to check out “Butterfly Blues,” a short vintage guitar-centered 1:34 burst of rock & roll that brings Lee Hazelwood to mind, with a pace and rhythm similar to his hit, “Railroad” (a popular live track often performed by Blue Rodeo).
Two of the tracks found on “Midwestern States” that stand out for me also happen to be two of the liveliest. Co-written with Campbell Woods, “Heading To The Bar To Do Bad Again” is chock full of that old-school country charm. With a little picking to start, and quickly accompanied by a foot-tapping drum beat and some hearty pedal steel, Stajcer delights with some equally fun lyrics: “You never heard the faintest peep out of me / When you asked me to try sobriety / But you sealed your own fate / The day that I went straight / ‘Cause now that I’m sober I can see / You’re not the one for me.” Hints of Jerry Reed spring to mind, and the Joplin style ragtime piano is so well placed, yielding back to the steel, yielding back to the vocals.
Outstanding, as is “If I Had One Bottle More,” which sees Stajcer and his band playing very loose and having a ton of fun in the process: “If I had two, three or four / I know I’m not keeping score / And there’s no telling what I’d do from here / What I’d give to make it right / Preaching altruistic light / ‘Cause darling I hold overwhelming fear.” Expect to find plenty of energy here, as I cannot help but picture a rowdy saloon on a Saturday night packed full of boot-scootin’ dancers strutting their stuff to the music. The pedal steel and rollicking piano keys once again add so much depth to the sound.
Thomas Stajcer offers proof that although you spend most of your professional time behind the soundboard, it doesn’t mean that you should resist the urge to scratch the proverbial itch. Stepping into the studio once again to record his sophomore album, he beautifully combines his passion for old country, his appreciation for the generation that followed, and his wider musical influences to create another gem that is distinctly his own. Most importantly, for us listeners, we have his wonderful world to escape to again for a while. “This album is definitely a step forward from the last in all departments and I’m really proud of it,” he states in closing. “There was much more attention paid to details and I think you’ll find more intention in these recordings.” “Midwestern States” can be found across streaming platforms from today.
Photo Credit: Matt Williams