Dan Johnson is fond of the term “Americana.” His band, the Expert Sidemen, have hosted the weekly Americana Tuesdays showcase at Valentine’s for the past year or so, and pretty much anywhere you see them listed—for instance, on the Caffe Lena calendar, advertising their record release show this Saturday—you’re bound to encounter the word. Like “roots music,” Americana can mean many things to many people, and nothing on its face, but proponents like Johnson generally use the term to summarize a sound that may include elements of folk, country, rock, bluegrass and old-time jazz according to their common attributes: essentially acoustic instruments and a rural ethos.
Sleep on the Way, the band’s debut album, recorded by Sten Isachsen at Bender Studios in Delmar, has both of these elements in spades. Which is itself nothing extraordinary, given the way the genre has been flooded in recent years by flannel-clad strummers. But unlike too many Americana acts who attempt to earn the genre’s rustic charm with indelicate musicianship and haggard production, Dan Johnson and His Expert Sidemen treat the songs on their record with a gentleness and craft that the stories deserve.
Whether telling the story of a Civil War soldier, singing away insomnia or channeling an invalid outlaw, Johnson renders his characters in plain-clothes language that will stick in your head on just a couple listens. There’s the glimmer of a Southern affectation in his vocals, but if his songs had to be traced to a particular tradition, it would readily be that of John Prine in the way he curls the lyric “Ain’t got a dime or a dollar bill” on the loping “Old Pine Hill.” The heartwrenching chorus of the title track, too, is something Prine could be proud of. Telling the story of a family evicted from their home, he sings, “When we were children carried into the night/Everything was wrong but we were alright/Driving all night and we’re driving all day/Get in the car, you can sleep on the way.”
The Expert Sidemen, including Brian Elsenbeck on accordian, Max Figarsky on drums, Pete Murphy on bass and Roger Noyes on electric guitar and pedal steel, move deftly between the crushing tear-in-bear honky-tonk of “Someone New” and the Gypsy-tinged “State Line Blues,” complete with a Sam Bush-y reggae outro. The licks are tasteful and familiar, two other qualities that are fairly requisite for the genre. Americana is meant to work in a timeless fashion, a goal that often comes off as nostalgic or pandering, but when done right, as Dan Johnson and the Expert Sidmen have managed here, familiar sounding songs bring seasoned focus to contemporary themes and contemporary sounds bring new perspective to tradition.