By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
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Let's live hard together!" So declares the MySpace bio of Ault-based singer-songwriter Chad Price, a man known to pack more heartache and drunkenness into a single song than some do in their entire careers. No one who's been following Price's alt-country band Drag the River up close over the past thirteen years has any doubt that the outfit has indeed done some hard living — some of which can be palpably felt on Price's debut solo album, Smile Sweet Face, released this week on Suburban Home Records.
But it wasn't always supposed to be that way. When Price and fellow Drag guitarist Jon Snodgrass took time out from their respective bands — pop-punk legend All and Fort Collins rockers Armchair Martian — to play rootsy acoustic tunes as a duo in 1996, it seemed like a chance for both of them to turn things down a notch, both volume-wise and party-wise. But, as Price can affirm, that didn't last long.
"I never really thought we'd turn into this fucking party band," says Price with a laugh. "For the first couple years, Drag really existed as just me and Jon with acoustic guitars, really stripped down. But as soon as we got a full band and started touring, it just took off. People would be like, 'I'm going to see Drag the River. I'm going to get fucked up.' With that always being the vibe, that's what we turned into. It just got out of control."
Drag derailed completely in 2007, when the group's relentless schedule and internal pressure finally took their toll. "We had been touring so much," Price says of the group's sudden breakup that year. "When you're in a van with four other people for that long, you know, tempers flare. People tend to hate each other and shit. We needed some time apart, so we did that."
The bandmembers tentatively reunited in early 2008 for a handful of shows to promote the release of You Can't Live This Way, which was supposed to be Drag's posthumous swan song. Curiously, the disc features the hushed, sparse "Tobacco Fields," a Price song that could easily have fit on Smile Sweet Face. Still, Price insists that he set about his solo project with a clean slate — and barely a plan.
"I started writing the songs [for Smile Sweet Face] right after the initial breakup. Drag was pretty busy. We were on tour quite a bit, and then suddenly we weren't. I was just sitting at home with a lot of time to write. All of the songs were pretty much from scratch; none of them were started as Drag songs. I didn't even know I was going to be making a solo record at first. I just knew I was going to be playing some solo shows."
Whispery, stripped down and accompanied only by a few wheezes of the squeezebox — supplied by Rick Steff of Lucero, the popular Memphis roots-rock band that's been a friend and tourmate of Drag for years — Smile Sweet Face is also deeply melancholic. But, as Price insists, the notion of being bandless for the first time in years was not a driving force behind the album.
"I thought it was a pretty good possibility that Drag wouldn't be getting back together," he says. "The way we parted ways seemed pretty permanent. But that really wasn't the reason why I started writing these songs. When you're a songwriter, it's just something you've got to do. Pick up the guitar, you know? It's therapeutic, I guess."
Therapy might be putting it lightly. From the opening beats of "This Cross" — which consist of Price counting off time with a few thumps of his palm on the acoustic guitar — to the final breath of accordion on the aptly named "Going Away," Smile Sweet Face is stunningly cathartic. Folksy and warm, the disc draws in subliminal ways on two of Price's earliest and enthusiastically admitted influences: Sam Cooke and Hank Williams, icons the songwriter grew up on. Smile Sweet Face doesn't sound either strictly soul or openly country, but the emotional undertow Cooke and Williams once so ably harnessed also flows through Price's grizzled yet tender songs. And even though Drag has officially reconvened and appears to be ready to tour and record once again, Price isn't letting go of the newfound freedom and intimacy of his solo work. Not to mention the simple peace and quiet.
"We did our time in Drag, and we've gotten what we'd shot for out of it," says Price. "Jon is doing his solo thing now, too. Drag is going from playing 150 or 200 shows a year to playing 30 or 40. It'll be nice to kind of step back from that a little. This is a clean slate for me. I'd never actually sat down and written like that before, by myself and for myself. It had always been me and Jon working on each other's songs. Even when I was in All, it was a collaborative effort."
And now that All has begun playing concerts here and there around the country with Price's predecessor in the band, frontman Scott Reynolds, the possibility of Price performing once more with the world-famous punk outfit remains at least a peripheral possibility. Not that Price — about to embark on a two-week solo tour of the South — is champing at the bit to revisit the realm of full stacks and mosh pits.