Before Nashville coopted and platinum-gilded the sound of the Eagles, country-rock enjoyed a late-’60s, early ’70s golden age that was slightly more under the radar. Its touchstones included such musicians as Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and New Riders of the Purple Sage and such landmark albums as the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead.
I’d been listening to the last two in preparation for an onstage conversation with writers Blair Jackson and David Gans about their book This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead, when I simultaneously dove into Stolen Tools & Stereos, the new album by Bay Area singer-songwriter and guitarist Joe Rut. The opening track, “Sleepy Rain,” could hardly better fit the pocket created by Garcia and company on such songs as “Friend of the Devil” and “Dire Wolf.” The presence of David Grisman on mandolin and Bobby Black (Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen) on pedal steel seal the era-authenticity deal.
The Oakland, California–based Rut has been putting out albums intermittently for more than 15 years, but Stolen Tools & Stereos has the sound of a breakthrough. Nobody other than Rut plays on every track; Bay Area MVPs Val Esway (vocals) and Steve Lucky (piano, organ) contribute to about half the dozen performances. Scott Amendola and John Hanes share drum duties, Dave Jess and Tom Drohan trade off on bass. And there are cameos by fiddler Jason Kleinberg, pedal steel player Tim Marcus, percussionist Vicki Randle, harmonica veteran Will Scarlett, and others. Still, the album has a unified feel, held together by Rut’s splintery tenor singing against harmony vocals and a country-rock band aesthetic that flexes easily from the Caribbean lilt of “I Love My Memory” to the Buck Owens– and Merle Haggard–inspired Bakersfield honky-tonk of “Magic Monkey” and swing of “Drunk Dial” to the Dave Alvin–esque “8 A.M. 5th of July.”
Ultimately, not unlike Gram Parsons’ best albums and the classic collaborations of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, it’s terrific—and in Rut’s case, often humorous, sometimes poignant—songwriting that provides an unshakable foundation for all the other musical charms. If Gram Parsons and Kinky Friedman had a baby, it might have been Joe Rut.
If you give them a listen, you won’t soon forget the sharply crafted, neatly detailed “Black Velvet Elvis,” “Flea Market,” “Heartbirddream,” “You’re the Porcupine for Me,” “Inscribing My Initials,” and “Love Street in My Mind.” And eventually you’ll notice the way Rut’s economical, evocative guitar cuts through the carefully layered production, in the tradition of the best country-rock.
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