Back to the barrooms

rex hobartThere are three distinctive strains of country music these days — a sort of back to basics school, an Americana/folky tradition, and everything else (meaning all the crap, with precious few exceptions, you hear on the radio or see on CMT).

Personally, I go for classic country — that brand of music that keeps the songs simple and the sound authentic. I like steel guitars, aching vocals, chicken-clucking Telecasters and songs about booze, trains and cheating. It doesn’t get much better than Hank Williams or George Jones (or Merle Haggard, or Johnny Cash, or Buck Owens or Dwight Yoakam or Lefty Frizzell).

So it should be no surprise that I have developed a fondness for Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys. Hobart writes songs about broken hearts and shattered dreams as good as any you’ve ever heard.

“Are you really that miserable?” I asked him the other day.

“I would be if I wasn’t writing the songs,” Hobart said from his new home in Buffalo. “I have this uncanny ability to obsess. I guess it’s just part of being a songwriter or an artist — you can just take a bit of information or an overheard line from a conversation and just run with it. I’m really an optimist, but I do like to think about love and what it does to people when it goes wrong.”

His new CD (the third Hobart’s recorded for Bloodshot), is full of tales about love gone wrong, and not a number in the lot will inspire any boot scootin’. From the opening “You’ve Got Some Changing to Do,” to “Gotta Get Back to Forgetting You,” “Another Bad Habit of Mine” and “I Should Be Gone by Now,” Hobart’s “Your Favorite Fool” is overflowing with the kind of tears that used to flow as freely as the beer in every honky tonk across America.

But Hobart isn’t some throwback hack jumping on the retro wagon train. His songs fairly drip with sincerity, which is what he wants to hear. In a world where retro means reducing previous eras to a comic-book pastiche of styles and sounds, Hobart is just trying to create country music as he hears it.

“I hope that we’re not retro,” Hobart said. “I think what we’re doing is a take on a Bakersfield sound, or maybe somewhere between Bakersfield and Nashville in 1965, but coming from guys who used to play in a punk band in Kansas City.

“The thing about retro that scares me,” he added, “it’s just regurgitation. It’s a facade. It’s thinking that — it’s like, looking for authenticity backwards. I don’t sit down and try to sound like a certain record. If we’re going to be considered retro by anybody, I hope that they don’t think we’re just trying to be the Buckaroos or the Strangers.”

Hobart and his band, the aptly titled Misery Boys, got together in Kansas City in 1997, after Hobart had spent several years ruling his hometown’s hardcore punk scene in Giant Chair. But after a while, Hobart felt he had taken punk and Giant’s Chair as far as he could go with it. His songwriting started to seem stale, and then one day on a whim, while on tour with his band, at a truck stop in Maryland, he bought a George Jones cassette.

It wasn’t like Hobart had never heard Jones before. Honky tonk and classic country is what his parents played around the house when he was growing up. He just didn’t appreciate it then.

“You get back in the van after rocking out for a night and you think you don’t want to hear any more guitars like that, and so I listened to that tape,” Hobart said. “I think that’s when it clicked. I realized the music was so simple and nothing got in the way, and by that time I had had a heart break or two, and I would hear a song and I’d think, ‘Oh, that’s what that song means.'”

By the time Bloodshot released “The Spectacular Sadness,” Hobart had transformed his songwriting into the kind of bare honesty that makes neon lights glow and a longneck a man’s best friend.

Hobart and his band are getting ready for a tour of the Southeast, but Pollstar only lists two upcoming shows at the moment – both in Chicago at the end of the mouth.

“I just hope that people will come out and see live music,” Hobart said. “Especially if people are going to burn CDs. If you’re going to get free music, at least go out and see live shows. That’s my big gripe for the day. That, and don’t start any wars if you can avoid it.”

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