Ever find yourself all swept away on the rising tide of ‘Outlaw this’ and ‘singer-songwriter that,’ cursing the false gods of corporate radio and mainstream country while trying to remember what exactly the hell it was you loved about music to begin with anyway? You know the sensation; you recognize it from the local watering holes where the cool kids stare at hipsters who are laughing at the drugstore cowboys who are too dumb to know they might not get past the goth crew outside alive. Slipknot shirts in one corner, buncha balding, bearded guys in the back with Pantera merch and Dimebag tats. Affliction-shirt wearing douchebag leaning on the bar letting the whole world wonder whether the sparkles on his ass or the shine on his boots glares brighter. He’s a human disco ball at peace with his coolness, safely devoid of sensibilities belying the assumption.
All of this while the picker on stage namedrops John Prine and Sid Vicious while introducing his latest cover of a Johnny Cash song and letting on how Mike Ness and Marty Robbins led his soul to Jesus to begin with.
It makes your head hurt, don’t it? I mean just pound and pound and pound; after a while you can’t keep up. Everybody’s naming somebody and nobody knows who but everyone nods and acts like they’ve been fans for life. It just pounds and hammers and whittles away, and sometimes it gets so bad you just wanna go buy a beer for the ass clown in the Affliction shirt and pretend for a minute you’re Mother Theresa doing a kind thing for the least among us.
There are a whole lot of ways to fix all of the above. The most consistent one is to just wait a few years ‘til you outgrow the game and quit giving a shit who influenced who and who said or wrote what and just learn to appreciate what there is right here and now. That path takes some time, though, and if you’re not just real patient or you’re overly worn down, there are quicker and simpler solutions.
Simple – at least on the surface – the key thereto.
One of them is to find the songwriters who are still just doing it their way for their own benefit and lack both the time to drop names and the ego to cause them a desire to do so. Dave Thomas fits that bill.
Dave is a guy whose music is incredibly easy to miss on the first pass. Couple of reasons for that. One is that his playing style and his arrangements and vocals fade easily into the background at a busy bar. He provides an easy accompaniment for the riveting conversation that guy over there is having with that girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day if the Coors Light wasn’t driving her bus. The other is that his lyrics seem simple and plain, almost just paint by numbers if you’re listening with half an ear or less. Dave’s a pleasant sort, a friendly looking fellow with a warm and practiced smile whose ease behind the microphone is well honed and deeply burnished by years upon years of performing. He knows how to play the part and keep the crowd happy, seated, and ordering another round.
Which makes him a good businessman.
What the crowds often miss is the wit and insight Thomas brings to a song. Casual listeners can think his is a paint by numbers affair. The more discerning will realize that onions have layers and that not many peel them back the way Dave is prone to do.
What Thomas does, see, is as simply complex as it comes. He’s seen the world, built a profound frame of reference. Learned how to not take things too seriously. And as a result, learned how to lean back and observe and enjoy – and then recount for posterity at leisure. It’s harder to do than it sounds. It’s even harder to do it well. Yet Thomas is proficient in the art. Which makes him a welcome and comforting reminder of how music could be back before it got all segmented and walled off and linked into identities and self-worth and intelligentsia and such.
Sometimes, kids, intelligence manifests itself in utterly pleasing simplicity. And that’s Pearl Snap Shirt in a nutshell. The title track sounds like the sort of driving country rocker mainstream radio gets wood over, and the lyrics appear at a glance to fit the bill. But there’s an underlying cynicism poking fun at the idea that a piece of clothing could ever make the man. Much less make the woman want him, although the female character here does make advances. It’s incredibly easy to picture a crowd of the Ballcap Nation’s finest packed around the stage, hats snugged down backwards, corded bracelets and necklaces accentuating American Eagle shirts and microbrews in hand just loving this song. High fiving each other all around. But here’s the genius in a Thomas song: Those guys falling for the obvious aren’t the point. Rather, it’s about the one guy in the back corner leaning on the wall that recognizes the smirk behind Dave’s friendly smile and tips his hat one time. Thomas catches that, and knows it’s working.
On every conceivable level.
Thomas can do simple and sincere equally well, as evidenced by cuts like “Back In The Islands” where the Caribbean arrangement and accompaniment serve mostly to tell a tale of honest friendships and days where life was lived right – and more importantly, lived well. It’s easy to sing along, easy to reminisce, easy to roll with the flow. Also easy to get lulled into thinking this is just a comfortable little record with some funny moments thrown in. “All Hat” jumps to mind, reminiscent of the old Diamond Rio ditty “Bubba Hyde.” Genuinely funny stuff, and the comeuppance at the end will ring true for any city dwellers who’s spent much time at all in the urban honky tonks where modern Buds and Sissies attempt to convince each other they’re something they’re not. But there’s a parting shot on this record capable of stunning you into silence. Titled “Street Singer,” it’s the bow on the present that makes it clear Thomas understands full well the power of a song and the souls that give them birth. Visceral moments in this track, the kind that can make a man pull the truck over and stop just to queue the song up again and make sure he heard what he thought he did.
Therein lies Dave’s genius. He’s an observer of life, the guy in the upper deck taking it all in and retelling his observations with a wry wit and a dry humor that some people just utterly miss. Layers to the onion, see. But he’s also got the gift of songwriting down pat and the ability to put a starkly human face on the least among us. An altogether interesting songwriter, far enough along in life to understand that the name dropping and the agitation and the blah blah blah aren’t worth it. Thomas just observes, then writes, and has a ball out singing his songs around town. Everybody enjoys them. Not everybody gets them. And Dave just takes it all in. Bound to be some more songs on the way, after all.
Pearl Snap Shirt is a two-CD set; first disc is full band production and the second revisits the track list in acoustic form with the stories of the songs’ origins told in between. Intriguing format, one that other artists might ought to seriously consider. Makes for an engaging listen, and provides opportunity to enjoy the songs in varied form depending on your mood.
You can find out more at http://www.reverbnation.com/davethomasband, or look Dave up on Facebook and ask him how to get yourself a copy. His brand of music absent pretense is good for your mind.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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