The short version: While a tad inconsistent, The Lowdown Drifters show off plenty of wit and personality on ‘Last Call For Dreamers.’
- Favorite tracks: “Last Night In Denver,” “Between The Bottom and the Bottle,” “This Old House,” “Barstools,” “Fire In Her Eyes”
- Least favorite track: “Won’t Find Me Anymore”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: Here’s the untold truth of independent country music – no act remains independent because they want to remain obscure.
And while it’s ironic that statement comes as a shock, it creates a weird dichotomy between fans and the artists themselves. On one hand, when artists like Pat Green, Jack Ingram or the Randy Rogers Band signed their major label deals, it ended up backfiring for them and leaving a sour taste in core fans’ mouths.
On the other hand, it can also lead to other great opportunities and increased exposure for country music at large – Sturgill Simpson’s stint at Atlantic Records and Tyler Childers’s recent signing to Sony are two great examples. Yet if I were to make one criticism of the genre I love, it’s that its love for authenticity is a bit of a double-edged sword. Fans do love when artists come across as genuine, but there’s also a weird need to want to keep them boxed in as our relative unknown favorites, and that’s how the crap, rather than the cream, rises to the top.
Granted, there’s the other side of the authenticity debate, too – the image problem. No, I’m not referring to the obvious trend in mainstream country music where image usually trumps the actual music (a big reason why the success of Luke Combs has massive implications), but also the trend where artists don’t fit into our prescribed notions of what a “country act” should look and sound like.
And that’s where the Lowdown Drifters come into play, a band that hails from Stanwood, Washington, not exactly the typical place to foster a love of country music. Sure, lead singer Big John Cannon’s deep, bellowing voice fits in nicely with the fellow Texas acts they’ve opened for on tour like Shane Smith and the Saints or Jason Boland and the Stragglers, but their origins still hearken back to that age-old debate of authenticity.
But going back to the first point of wanting success, that’s fitting to bring up, as their debut full-length album Last Call For Dreamers (alongside 2016’s Wood & Water EP) speaks toward that sentiment and establishes the Lowdown Drifters as an act to watch out for. The writing can be a little rough around the edges and show the marks of a debut album at points, but on a technical level, the Lowdown Drifters are putting an interesting spin on their brand of country-rock.
On that note, what’s most interesting about this band is their approach to composition, namely in how they take their time to set the stage with their songs and give them room to breathe. The electric guitars often have a burnished, smoldered quality behind them to effectively either push their uptempos or give higher stakes to their more melancholic tracks, the acoustic grooves help to establish good melodies, and the band also supplements their material with plenty of lingering banjo and dobro for added flavor. Perhaps the best example is “Fire In Her Eyes,” where the simmering, warmer tones are matched excellently against the acoustic strums and softer percussion to capture a genuine infatuation.
Elsewhere, though, while the opener “Red Rock” does linger on a tad too long, that blistering electric guitar solo does end the song on a cathartic note, something I’ll address later when it comes to lyrics and themes. And while the band can rock out with the best of them like on “Won’t Find Me Anymore,” it’s their more melancholic tracks that are most effective. “We Three Kings” works for essentially the same reasons “Fire In Her Eyes” does – good minor chords bolstered by warm acoustics and fiddle to craft a wistful, reflective atmosphere. But then there’s a track like “Between The Bottom and the Bottle” which starts as a great solo acoustic track before adding in a heavier, darker rock presence, and honestly I’m surprised how well it’s pulled off. If I were to nitpick in this area, however, it would be with the closer, “Empty Bottles,” which feels just a bit too cheery and upbeat matched against the subject material and ends the album on a more sour note than I’d otherwise prefer.
On the note of subject material, though, it was only a matter of time before we addressed the lyrics and themes given my introductory ramble. Now, yes, there is a streak running across this album that does speak to the Lowdown Drifters wanting that aforementioned success and not quite reaching it, but it doesn’t come across as petty or mean-spirited. Instead, you get the impression that these guys are just as happy playing the music they love while continuing on their journey. “Last Night In Denver” is the least subtle example of that sentiment, but it’s framed in the right way with humor and a self-aware acceptance of the situation (really, if you know how great these guys are, just ask the bartender or a few drunks from church, as they say). And it does also bring up a good point that, when it comes to Nashville, it’s all about who you know rather than that fantasy of rising up through genuine talent and a dream, and that’s a side they hit on that makes for an effective, subtle protest track despite how tiresome these otherwise are these days.
Otherwise, though, the other story Last Call For Dreamers explores is where to go from here. The characters often find themselves strangely in the middle of a situation and gradually move to solutions as the album progresses. It’s fitting that the character on “Red Rock” stops to catch his breath and ponder his next move while the ending character on “Empty Bottles” winds up in jail for failing to address his incessant alcoholism (hey, I didn’t say they were good solutions).
Of course, the writing is also where my main issues with the album stem, namely in how, despite the band tapping into something very personal and reaping the benefits on “Last Night In Denver,” they also have a tendency to paint broad sketches with their stories that can be hit or miss. On one hand, “We Three Kings” does scream as yet another ode to high school days gone by, but when you dig deeper into it, you realize it’s more about the camaraderie and those rare bonds that are strongest at that particular points in our lives rather than glorifying any kind of juvenile behavior. It’s a nice spin on a familiar theme in country music.
On the other hand, while “Won’t Find Me Anymore” does seem like it’d be a good live cut, it’s a bit generic and hokey in capturing the lingering spirit of country music, opting more for bombast rather than an actual connection, especially when, if you turn off your radio dial, you will find what they claim is lost in country music in this song. “Diamonds & Rust” is the one other track that goes for broader strokes rather than telling an interesting story, despite how good the sentiment of capturing how time takes its toll on everyone is. “Diesel Smoke” is also another track that could have afforded an extra verse to tie together the trucker’s connection between how his career affects his home life to how that spirit was planted in him as a boy by his father; it just seems like it’s missing that extra detail to drive it home.
Still, despite the weaker closing track, Last Call For Dreamers really finds a rock-solid footing in the latter half. Again, “Between The Bottom and the Bottle” is executed damn well, but the next track, “This Old House” also serves as an interesting coda which not only speaks to my earlier point of characters moving on as the album progresses, but also takes the story in a darker direction than I definitely enjoyed. And while the narrator is quick to admit that his faults led to the termination of the relationship on “Black Hat,” it’s still framed in a unique manner where the other side’s handling of the situation almost makes her as bad as he was.
And while it’s specific stories like that which truly show the band at their best, “Barstools” is probably the one track that speaks to that broader sentiment and works well, if only because the band has obviously truly lived this song and adds the final message of this album – for as much as life on the road can take its toll on characters in “Diesel Smoke” and “The Road,” the love of music usually triumphs first and foremost.
Last Call For Dreamers certainly has a few spots where it shows its mark as a debut album, but between the band’s knack for solid melodies and excellent tones, there’s a lot of potential here as well. The technical ability is great, the songwriting shows a lot of personality behind it as its best, and there’s enough stylistic diversity that shows where the band could take their sound next on future projects. And if there’s any fan who chooses to dismiss based on the band’s roots, well … that’s their loss, because this is a solid debut album.
The Lowdown Drifters are Big John Cannon, Galen Bailey, Richard Williams, Tim Fernley and Ryan Klein