I don’t know about you, but I could probably count at least ten bands that I grew up listening to that broke up in the last fifteen years, but have recently got back together. The Dry County Crooks is not one of those bands, but I wish they were. You see, I hadn’t heard of
I don’t know about you, but I could probably count at least ten bands that I grew up listening to that broke up in the last fifteen years, but have recently got back together. The Dry County Crooks is not one of those bands, but I wish they were. You see, I hadn’t heard of the Portland, Oregon natives back when my tender young ears were primarily indulging in punk/ska and the new-to-me emo/screamo music of the early 2000s. I don’t think I would have been ready for the punk-infused country of The Crooks at the time, but I am so glad their new EP Life, Love and Death came across my path all these years later.
“Somewhere between Johnny Cash, Social Distortion, and the Ramones lives The Dry County Crooks,” says drummer Troy Stutzman, and I agree. The leading track, “Broken Bond,” starts off like a lovely folk song that gets you leaning in and preparing for something gentle, but then the drums kick in and show you what you’re in for — steady punk beats with a classic country back-and-forth bass line. The vocals come in, raspy and honest, carrying the song forth in its natural progression like a steady rocky river. But instead of just hanging in the river, we climb the mountain as the song just keeps piling, the chorus bursting in with a chord change, then mounting up the harmonies, finally taking us back down the other side with a delightful little guitar lick before hitting the second verse. It’s a wonderful start to a fresh new EP, and one well-earned from the band.
Formed in 2001, The Dry County Crooks disbanded in 2011, partially due to the frontman’s struggle with addiction and mental health. Vinny D. is now sober and working as a Peer Support Specialist and, with a clear mind and a healthy body, he felt it was time to reform the band and re-establish their name in the Northwest, the culmination of which is the new EP. “Be careful, be kind,” says frontman Vinny D., discussing the theme of Life, Love and Death, released this summer.
The album continues to both surprise and remain on-brand as “Dallas, Oregon” crashes in like an alt-rock song. But it isn’t long before the familiar country beat comes back in. The drums really shine on this song, brought forward in the mix, though not sacrificing the vocals and their relatable message. As the song climaxes, the singers echo “falling in love” over and over, and you can almost see the band playing live, leaning towards each other as they play this punky, happy-go-lucky version of a country love song.
True to great album form, the next song continues the arc with a nice bridge of strong full-band hits before stripping the sound down along with a sluggish beat. The image of a tired guitarist comes to mind, leaning against a front porch pillar as he strums quietly, singing his lament along with the crickets at sunset. The electric guitar later cuts through on this one, filling in gaps between vocals like the wind through the trees on that same summer night, carrying us between phrases and ideas with careful ease.
“I think the title represents our mindset in this chapter of our lives. As we get older we understand better the meaning of gratitude, the importance of love, and that death can come without warning. We write and sing about lived experiences. It’s the most honest approach you can take. Life, Love, and Death and all points in between.” – Vinny D.
The tightness of the band is evident from start to finish, brought together in a way that only maturity and time can really manage. According to bassist and backing vocalist Johnny “Blaze” Stanford, The Dry County Crooks went into the studio well-rehearsed and ready to record, their parts already dialed in. And as electric guitarist Paul Becker states, this preparedness before recording contributes to their live show sounding “really similar” to the record. Furthermore, the collaboration and cohesiveness of the band was even better established with creative input from every member on Life, Love and Death. “I had full creative input on this one, and sang all the harmonies,” says Stanford with excitement. “Also, singing lead vocals with Vinny on ‘Sad Season’ was huge for me.”
The fourth song brings the energy back up with a punk feel that leans more towards Social Distortion than some of the other tracks, though still retaining that country bass line on the chorus. Stanford’s vocals are spot on, and blend well with Vinny on this song, as well as the rest of the album. I don’t know if it’s the lyrical content or just how this song comes together, but everything seems to fit extra nicely on “Sad Season” — you really get the feeling that the band is made up of good friends having a good time creating music they care about. The repeat of the chorus at the end hammers this in, melodic and profound as the band sings, “Take your time my friend, life is dangerous. Take your time my friend, love is serious.” But just to keep listeners on their toes and engaged, instead of a fade out (where I thought the song was going), they land in a very punk rock way, slamming on song strong notes before finishing with a crisp stop on a minor chord.
But with a fifteen year gap, can you really just show up again and start playing again? No stranger to hard work, The Dry County Crooks say they are ready and willing to do the work to get back to where they were, though their fans have received them with open arms, part of which must be due to this impressive new EP. “With the pandemic, mental and physical health challenges, and band member changes, we have to practice patience and bide our time,” says Vinny. “I would not change a thing about the entire process. I believe the bonds strengthened. We learned many lessons about mindfulness. And, I feel that our collective musicianship is at a high level and the camaraderie is unshakable. This recording was a collective effort. It happened when it was supposed to happen.”
Those are the words of a mature musician, patient, humble and ready to get to work. Life, Love and Death concludes with the title track, a gentler direction for the album to land on which allows for lyrics to shine through. On writing it, Vinny says, “I did have trouble finding the right words on the closing track. For the most part it was very organic. These emotions had to get from my heart and head, and aligned with melody. It’s involuntary. It’s how I communicate, how I learn, and how I grow. Hopefully people will hear it and identify with it. That is how connections are made. The humanity of it.”
I have love to give to those who are hurtin’Life, Love and Death
And that’s how it lands, with empathy and humanity, which is a great way to conclude an album, and an even better way to come back after a hiatus. So I hope you take the time to listen to Life, Love and Death, as well as the rest of The Dry County Crooks’ catalog, available wherever you listen to music. Also, head to their website at http://thedrycountycrooks.com for more information, and to find tour dates for those of you in the Pacific Northwest.