The sepia-toned,
poverty-stricken paradise in the songs of most Americana artists today
has little literary direction, other than to charm the listener with
vignettes quaint and country. This music only reflects a cultural
obsession — reactive to our crisp modern times — with all things rural
and out-of-date and dirty, and with notable exception rarely goes
beyond the merely descriptive. All the world is a rotten-floored front
porch where simple passes for subtle, and true coarse human anxiety is
scarcely explored or wrestled with.

The shelves are
flooded with craftily costumed artists photographed in boots and lace,
pondering something folksy on a lonely haystack with guitar and
tambourine. The saddest thing about this market-driven approach to
indie roots music is that it has roped in a lot of brilliantly talented
musicians. It’s certainly safe to say that most roots artists with
record contracts are, themselves, impressively skilled on their
instruments and backed by musicians of the highest caliber.

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But the soul of
American roots music, draped as it is in beautiful melody, has been the
close relationship of that music to its words. Somewhere the imagery of
music has lost touch with its roots. America’s is a music built not
only on lovestruck loneliness, but on social oppression, economic
strife, crude sexual expression, common humanity and political dissent.
These are the elements of American life — all still present today —
that gave rise to the first blues, folk, country and rock.
Corporate-driven artists shy from these themes, gilding a rich musical
tradition in empty showmanship and forgettable verse.

Roger Hoover strode
quietly onto the scene in Akron, Ohio, about five years ago, with two
albums (“Golden Gloves” and “Panic Blues”) whose musical breadth alone
should have immediately placed him and his band, the Whiskeyhounds, on
touring gigs with the brightest Americana stars. It is likely the case
that the Whiskeyhounds — they’ve since changed their name to Magpies —
were lost in a crowd of beggars at the resurgent roots music banquet.
What listeners could have heard in these albums was tremendous
potential for lyrical complexity, which is the last distinguishing
honor to be attained by artists in any crowded musical genre.
Regardless, these were the Whiskeyhounds who chanced down to Arkansas
and established a connection that would eventually lead to lasting
musical relationships with such Arkansas artists as Hayes Carll, Cory
Branan and Graham Wilkinson.

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“I first met Conway
after our drummer booked a house show there for the Whiskeyhounds,”
says Hoover. Through a serendipitous punk-rock connection with Matt
White (then a Conway kid spending his spare time building a music scene
in the driest of college towns, now the booker/manager of Little Rock
music institution White Water Tavern) the Whiskeyhounds made it down to
Conway from Akron, Ohio.

“We pulled in the
drive in a rusted-out Ford van with trailer in tow,” Hoover remembers.
“We were instantly greeted with brotherly hugs and heartfelt
conversations by people we’d never met. From that moment on I have felt
accepted. I felt accepted as a writer, as a friend, and a citizen of
Conway.”

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Since then, Hoover
has developed a fan base in Central Arkansas that, he says, easily
trumps any reception in his home state. Arkansas is clearly an artistic
inspiration for the band: “Little Rock and Conway are very similar to
Cleveland and Akron, Ohio,” he says. “Since I’m from Ohio I have a much
more romantic view of Arkansas than maybe you have. I see a land rich
in folklore and farming soil that sprouted small American cities with
budding intellectual centers. Not far from the metropolis of Little
Rock you’ll find the Buffalo River and the Ozarks — two places that are
very mystic in my eyes. There seems to exist a constant struggle
between the old and the new.”

After building a
familial rapport with the Conway contingent, Hoover’s band underwent
some personnel rearrangement which resulted, ultimately, in the
creation of “Jukebox Manifesto,” one of the finest roots records since
Ryan Adams’ “Heartbreaker” or Gillian Welch’s “Time: The Revelator.”
“Jukebox Manifesto” sees Hoover’s poetic tales matched with music that
fully illuminates their literary panache. Songs from the first half of
“Jukebox” (“Cobblestone Road,” “Stone on the Ground”) are
instrumentally full, soaring sing-alongs that turn whole crowds into
chanting vagabonds: “Here comes the night, and I’m feelin’ like a
pistol-whipped criminal… from dusk ’til dawn, we ride alone!”

The real gems on
“Jukebox,” though, are the lonelier tales that exist on a quieter
plane, seeming chapters in some funereal saga of unrelenting
existential angst and personal tragedy. The band’s ability to pin down
stark, gothic musical settings that not only emphasize Hoover’s words,
but affect their meaning, really sets “Jukebox” apart from Hoover’s
previous work. “Down By the Riverside” makes personal regret sound
pastorally nostalgic: “Should time stand still, hindsight obscure, I’ll
meet you where the mountainside meets the water.”

But “Drifter” is the
album’s piece de resistance, taking a jilted lover’s confession of
stubborn loneliness to filmic heights: “Even though it’s a club I used
to play, they don’t let me walk in for free anymore.” The album winds
down with three quiet, wintry odes and closes with a stiff-lipped dirge
that leaves a knot in your throat.

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From day one of their
encounter, White has been singing the Magpies’ praises to anyone who
will listen: “Make no mistake about it — Roger Hoover is one of the
best songwriters in the country today. The Magpies are our absolute
favorite band to book at the White Water Tavern, and getting to see
them live is an absolutely moving and, if you’re like me, a potentially
life-changing event.

“Justin Gorski is one
of the most electrifying live players I’ve ever seen. He is a wild
genius, a classically trained madman,” says White. “You never know what
he’s going to do next. It almost feels dangerous watching him play the
piano.”

In live performances
Gorski takes center stage, and his playing appears to be the musical
version of speaking in tongues. In the middle of a perfectly fine
foot-tapping little tune, Gorski will snatch from the vaudevillian
ether a rolling piano solo, transforming the band from any rock quartet
to the sweatiest electric minstrel show this side of Sunday morning.

The name change from
Roger Hoover and the Whiskeyhounds to the Magpies (tagged, as well, as
“indiefolkrockrevivalists”) in effect decentralizes Hoover and draws
focus to the more collaborative work their music-making process is now.
Their new album, “Eastern Standard Time” (due out May 15), is
completely a collective effort. “Justin is there with an unlimited
knowledge of composition to help further along the song,” Hoover says.
“From there we take it to the rhythm section, where we round out what
tempo best suits the story.”

Where “Jukebox
Manifesto” had a cohesive dynamic with highs and lows that combined to
create an album that moved fluidly from song to song, “Eastern Standard
Time” punches each song into your head. Hoover’s stories, paired with
piano, organ and accordion with effortless-seeming brilliance, make for
tales as visually depictive as they are audibly wrenching.

“Elizah Jane”
portrays an epic journey to post-Katrina New Orleans to retrieve voodoo
cures for a dying pregnant lover whose ultimate death is heralded by
stabbing guitar and twisting, morbid organ. “Girl on the Hill,” another
highlight, is a paean to a mute muse in the grandest shape-note
tradition. Aside from these, the album keeps up a rowdy pace and
doesn’t so much revisit Highway 61 as repave it with broken bottles,
forgotten promises and dead lovers. The bulk of “Eastern Standard Time”
is an exhilarating mix of swampy church house testimonials doused in
whiskey, along with some of the best fist-pumping arena-style anthems
in 20 years. The best thing about this album is, unmistakably, how well
it is going to translate to live performance.

Just in their last
two albums, the Magpies have rounded out a more contoured geography of
American songscape than most artists could manage in an entire career.
Hoover refuses to grant name or boundary to this world, though.

“The characters in my
songs exist only in the eyes of people willing to see them,” he says.
“I just so happen to have been told their stories and have taken
artistic freedom to embellish them accordingly. Since I am the only
singer of my collected embellished story songs, these characters feel
like they exist in a separate world.

“I have not
intentionally set out to create an alternate America,” says Hoover.
“I’m trying to expose the real America.” Certainly the Magpies have
hewn out of life’s turmoil a depiction of American life that, real or
imagined, confounds all the clichés of the American roots industry: It
achieves timelessness without resorting to tired, antiquarian
romanticism, and reestablishes the vital connection between our varied
roots music traditions and the human stories they tell.

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