I got trampled by my woman,
I been cheated and double-crossed.
There was a coup in the altar,
I had a friend but he got lost.
Daniel Romano sits in a barber chair from the Eisenhower era, with his garish suit a newly tailored relic from a Porter Wagoner past. He sips cola from a retro bottle, and the Stetson on his head could hold gallons. The hair-cutting place where I meet the country troubadour is Crow’s Nest in Toronto’s Kensington Market. It is a riot of decor – Patsy Cline kitsch, nineties skate-punk and beefy, tattooed dudes with scissors. Time Forgot to Change My Heart, a dreamy weeper from Romano’s 2011 album Sleep Beneath the Willow wafts on the stereo. And Romano himself is a young man from an age long passed.
“I don’t see myself as a revivalist,” he says, when asked about his mid-sixties style of sad twang. “I’m just trying to be pure to it, because country-and-western music has gotten so destroyed.”
He means modern country, those mainstream sounds made by Carrie Underwood, Hunter Hayes and their slick-emotive breed. He shakes his head at the mention of the Scottish-Canadian crooner Johnny Reid, who unfathomably wins Junos in the country category. I mention that Reid himself doesn’t classify his flaring soul-rock as country. “That’s good,” the 27-year-old from Welland, Ont., says, nodding his head, “because he shouldn’t.”
The mainstream rules in country music, of course. But what the squares don’t know, the hipper people understand. Romano, on Willow and his new album Come Cry with Me, is recruiting a young, free-thinking audience to an AM-dial style of the 1960s. Pleasing melodies, lush arrangements and stories to melt hearts are the things that he does, with a baritone croon and steel-guitar sympathy up front.
Music, like most things, moves in cycles. From time to time, younger generations reach back for the vintage stuff – the country-blues and jug-band boom of 1960s being one example, with the desire for the real deal. But it’s just as likely that Romano’s audience isn’t thinking about the vintage angle or worrying about authenticity. “I’m not even sure anyone would acknowledge it as authentic,” Romano explains, “because it’s so far gone.”
And so, Romano’s take on the style of Tom T. Hall, Roger Miller and George Jones is perceived as fresh goods to the college-radio crowd. It’s not a blast from the past, but it’s a blast of something not happening elsewhere.
It’s not unlikely that some will see the digitally weathered cover of Come Cry with Me and see facile irony at work, what with Romano sporting a cheesy porn-movie mustache and wearing a Nudie-style gabardine get-up. (Legendary eccentric tailor Nudie Cohn designed outrageous rhinestoned suits for the magic people of the flower-power age.) Asked about the aesthetic, Romano just sees it as part of the package. “It’s evocative of the sounds on the album,” he says.
So, where Gram Parsons’s infamous Nudie suit may have been an act of winking rebellion – the white outfit worn on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 album The Gilded Palace of Sin was embroidered with images of pills, pot, poppies and iconic religious symbolism – Romano’s fashion choice was a simple salute to an era.
Some of Romano’s fan base might have been drawn in from the musician’s own past. His first band of note was Attack in Black, an indie-rock outfit with punk-music leanings. After the band fell apart three years ago, Romano went solo. He had already released a traditional-folk trio record (Daniel, Fred & Julie) and a folk-rock album (Workin’ for the Music Man) on You’ve Changed Records, a label he co-founded with Steve Lambke (Constantines, Baby Eagle).
The shift to straight-on country was natural. “The formulas and the melodies were familiar,” he says. “It was the only music my grandparents listened to, and my parents were into country-rock bands such as the Byrds. Growing up, it was always around me.”
After the release of Sleep Beneath the Willow, Romano was signed to New West Records in the United States. “It’s very easy to get involved in his songs, because of the clear, concise storytelling,” says George Fontaine, who brought Romano to the country and roots-music label. “People are gravitating back to this form of music, and he seems to be at the forefront of it. He has a mystique about him that’s hard to quantify.”
Or, oddly, hard to categorize. Despite Romano’s classic Nashville style, if Come Cry with Me were to get a Juno nomination, it would likely be in the wrong category. Even if the label were to submit the record in the country genre, Juno officials would likely move it to the roots side (with the shaggy alt-country acts), so as to distinguish it from the George Canyons and Johnny Reids of the modern country scene.
Modern country? That’s a relative description. Romano’s music is both new and old at once. Time moves on, changing everything. But it forgot to change him.
Songs that influenced Romano
If Daniel Romano wears a cowboy hat on his head, he wears his influences on his sleeve. Here are five country songs that inform the Ontario singer-songwriter’s classic style.
Wreck on the Highway (Roy Acuff, 1942): Waltzed pathos, about a pair of accident victims without a prayer.
Treasure of Love (George Jones, 1959): A moseying, fiddled shuffle with a message, that you are as rich as you are loved.
Reincarnation (Roger Miller, 1965): Romano’s new album reveals a taste for humour – the kind heard on the King of the Road singer’s plunky, light-hearted and philosophic ditty.
Homecoming (Tom T. Hall, 1969): The strummed flip-side to A Week in a Country Jail concerns a touring musician who doesn’t get home much.
Mommy, Will My Doggy Understand? (The Blue Sky Boys): From the harmonizing brothers Earl and Bill Bolick, a mandolin-flecked piece of sorrow about a dying girl and her pet-based worry.