When Drag the River's Jon Snodgrass describes an incident on a recent tour, it sounds a little bit like a David Lynch movie that was never made. During the last leg of the regional jaunt, a broken-down van was the catalyst for a nightmare freak show in a New Mexico "town" -- actually little more than a scruffy bar at an exit off the highway. The story ended 24 hours later, when Snodgrass and drummer Paul Rucker escaped with the help of a cast of characters straight out of Blue Velvet.
"There was this huge guy who looked just like Leon Russell, with this long beard and long bushy hair," Snodgrass explains, "and a very spiritual Indian guy who wanted to become a shaman but said he couldn't. So he was crying and wasted drunk at, like, seven in the morning, driving us to his house way up in the hills on dirt roads that kept getting smaller and smaller. It was just this whole big mess. I'm going to write it down one of these days."
Good fortune allows Snodgrass to skirt danger without ever really being harmed by it. He's one of those perpetually cheerful and laughing guys who seem to roll through life without anything ever sticking to them. Now that his band, Drag the River, is preparing to release Closed, its second full-length album, he'll soon have even more strange road tales to share. With a major promotional push from O&O/Upland Records and a national tour slated for the spring, the Fort Collins band is finally emerging from relative Front Range obscurity to claim a position as one of the more innovative offerings in the alt-country realm.
This burst of luck presents Snodgrass with a bit of a dilemma, however: Happy as he is about what's going on with the group, his role as its lead guitarist and vocalist casts him in a more sobering light. Drag's domain is the heartland music perfected by artists such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, but updated with an independent rock-and-roll mentality and the somber sophistication of John Prine. Because its music ranges from down-to-earth, sweet and sad to unhinged -- think the drunken edge of the Replacements -- Drag the River often forces a split between Snodgrass's happy-go-lucky daily self and the songs he sings.
"You can't be that way all the time," Snodgrass says. "Something's got to give. You know the old joke: 'Wouldn't want to be there when the laughter stops.' [The music] is just an outlet for anger so I don't have to take it out on anybody.
"I never have any fun before we play," he adds. "That's why I really like sometimes not being the last band, so I can kind of enjoy my evening. But once you hit the stage, you're ready to go. In Drag the River, I open my eyes. I can kind of look around and smile at people and stuff."
Drag the River unveils Closed, its first recording since 2000's Hobo's Demos, on March 26 -- much to the relief of the grassroots network of fans that has been growing steadily since the band formed in the early '90s. The album contains plenty of sad songs that gut you like a trout and leave you on the floor bleeding; also present are Snodgrass's trademark frenetic guitar lines and oddball chord changes. This is not fancy-pants hick pop -- the phony country music you find on the Nashville Network. Rather, Drag the River is informed both by an appreciation of the genuine stuff and by a commitment to avoid shlock.
"I think [Jon and I] were pretty much brought up on country," says guitarist/vocalist Chad Price. "It just sounds and feels a lot more natural doing Drag the River than anything else."
The interconnections among these players are sometimes hard to track. Many of them snake through a number of mighty respectable Colorado punk-rock bands. Price is the singer of All, Fort Collins's most recognizable punk band (featuring members of the Descendents), while Snodgrass's loyalties are divided between Drag the River and Armchair Martian, a straight-up rock-and-roll combo that includes Drag drummer Rucker. Bassist J.J. Nobody is a member of the Nobodies, another popular -- and loud -- local favorite.
Yet despite a shared background in punk, Drag the River has very little to do with the manic energy and bombast of that genre. Instead, the band trades in the kind of melancholy that only country can capture. Snodgrass's raspy wail of a voice is often complemented by Price's nicotine-growl harmonies, a pairing that works to distinct heart-cracking effect in songs like "Forgiveness," a slow, deep-country three-chorder with a couple of tricky little filigree touches. Like many Drag songs, it's a kind of atheistic drinker's manifesto: "My daddy preached to me/Every day for years/ The day that he died/I swallowed my tears/ With a tip of the bottle/And 'I wish you were here'/I'd trade forgiveness for a beer."
Although its release follows just a year and a half after that of Hobo's Demos, Closed comprises the first batch of new material to float down the Drag stream in more than half a decade. Demos -- named one of the top 25 breakup albums of all time by Denver's Modern Drunkard magazine -- was actually recorded in 1995 and 1996. Its songs were recorded for fun and never meant for public consumption; somehow, though, the sessions escaped the studio and were in circulation long before a CD was released. Audience reaction was strong enough that Snodgrass and Price decided to release the disc even though they felt that many of the songs were far from perfect.
"Even two years before [Demos] actually came out, there were people all over the country that had the record," Price says. "We'd been wanting to do it for a long time. We just recorded it because we had free time in the studio, put it together piece by piece with whoever. At some point, it was done, I guess. Not really done, but good enough."
This approach gave the collectiona warmth and spontaneity, although it has its share of ragged spots. And while the recording of Closed was a bit more methodical, the band's sincerity and heart are still evident; they're just a little sharper. The album showcases Zach Boddicker's pedal-steel genius even more prominently than Demos did, and the guitars, harmonies and drums sound more tightly woven than they did the first time around.
"For the new record, we had actually been on tour a few times, and kind of had a real band together," Price says. "For the first record, whoever walked in the door, we made them play. For [Closed], we actually had our shit together, although we recorded most of the stuff pretty much live, right on the spot. Maybe someone walked in and did a vocal overdub or something. But it was pretty real."
Audiences who've caught Drag's live show over the past couple of years have responded to the band's grounded approach to performance. It's almost as if, instead of having just a band, Price, Snodgrass, Rucker and company are building a coalition of like-minded people composed of musicians and listeners alike.
"We have really good shows in places like Santa Barbara, San Diego, Kansas City, Chicago, Minneapolis," notes Price.
"It's starting to be almost like the places we play elsewhere are like hometown shows," Snodgrass adds.
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