Wheels on Fire

Matthew Houck has revived truck-driving country—whether he wants to accept it or not

Nobody told whoever mothered Phosphorescent, a Brooklyn-based indie-folk/alt-country act led by singer/songwriter Matthew Houck, to discourage her babies from growing up to be cowboys.

Indeed, the band enjoyed a long, superb country trip in the last year, thanks to an excellent tribute album, 2009's To Willie, a covers collection of songs penned by the Red Headed Stranger. The well-reviewed effort caught the attention of Nelson himself, who invited Houck and company to play Farm Aid 2009 and to perform an hour-long set on Nelson's Sirius XM channel, Willie's Place.

Despite the massive favor and subsequent attention, Houck—who originally cut his teeth in the indie-rock college scene of Athens, Ga.—bristles a bit when asked why he's so intensely drawn to country music.

"Country just happens to be the form the music's taking now," he insists. "I don't know if I can really settle for that tag. Of course, if I was trying to avoid it, I made a really bad move by doing the Willie album. What I mean is that Phosphorescent has done a lot of different things musically, and we'll continue to do different things."

He's right: Phosphorescent has jumped around stylistically quite a bit. Houck's first widely celebrated effort, 2007's Pride, is an intimate yet expansive set of bedroom avant-folk-pop—with Houck playing all the instruments—that initially drew comparisons to Iron and Wine. A song like the spooky lullaby "A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise" conjures a gorgeous world tinged with darkness and dread, with multi-tracked falsetto harmonies exuding the aura of music fashioned by a less-shy Syd Barrett schooled in indie-rock dynamics and structures.

On the other hand, May's Here's to Taking It Easy sounds like a completely different imagination at work. It's an up-tempo album with a six-piece backing band—including pedal steel—that infects even the most country-ambivalent listener with full-blown white-line fever.

Houck says he admires the genre, but again, the category doesn't make him too comfortable.

"For me, it's just about songs," he says. "I like songs no matter what. I've never really agreed with genres and all this categorization of music. It's helpful to talk about it, but it's only shorthand, because music is impossible to describe to its smallest detail."

Houck does confess to a tendency toward presenting a unified album, though. He admits that it always feels good to do that, and that he enjoys exploring a sound to its fullest. He even cops to a vague desire to write and record a black metal album.

Seriously, though, black metal? For real?

"Well, I certainly wouldn't rule it out," he says. "Certainly not death metal, of course, but black metal might be good, since it's song-oriented."

Here's to Taking It Easy overflows with mud-flap-rapping, narrative-focused songs. The Bakersfield-sounding, saloon-piano-drenched waltz of "The Mermaid Parade," for example, relates the story of a brokenhearted dude flying from New York to Los Angeles in search of love, but who only ends up penning yet another lonely letter to his ex. More interestingly, lyrics like, "Now our hearts were on fire only two weeks ago / And our bodies were like live wires down on the beach in Mexico," wouldn't sound out of place on an old Eagles record.

"That was my very first attempt at telling a straight narrative in the course of a few verses," explains Houck. "It's definitely the most straightforward song I've ever written. It was a conscious thing."

In fact, the whole record is a little like "The Mermaid Parade," the intent being to write direct lyrics without relying too much on metaphor and imagery. "It's Hard to be Humble (When You're From Alabama)" is even punchier, with a driving rock beat and a blasting horn section that would've turned the Flying Burrito Brothers green with trucker envy. In the case of "It's Hard to be Humble," there's definitely a more aggressive side to Houck's writing on display here, with the song's protagonist looking for trouble wherever he can find it: "If I'm talking to you, mister, then you'd best be writing down what I say / And if you're talking to me like that, man, you'd best be walking away."

Speaking of trouble, Don Henley and Glenn Frey better watch their side views, because Taking It Easy may be a sign of better things to come. Phosphorescent, should they stick with country-rock, are poised to resuscitate the truckin' genre. And Houck would be fine with such comparatively off-the-wall success.

"It's my idea that success and artistic achievement don't have to be separate. I think there are examples of artists who didn't have to water everything down to have a wide appeal. Going in that direction and having faith in people—that they'll dig challenging music, anyway—are good things."

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