If y’all haven’t heard of The Junkers, it’s both tragic and completely understandable. Madison’s premier (read: only) honky-tonk band has built up a steady following while still remaining obscure enough to win new converts every time they play. The group has just released its first full-length, Hunker Down, which captures its unique songs and neo-traditional country sound about as well as 10 studio tracks can.
The band treads a very fine line between smirking irony and earnest sincerity, and this is no more evident than on “Buckeye Mile,” written by the group’s lead guitar player (and UW grad student) Matthew Stratton. Any song with weepy steel guitar laid over a chorus of “I think you’re sweeter than saccharine/ And your boyfriend’s smokin’ crack in Akron/ Baby, forget Ohio, remember me” will immediately seem like some sort of surrealistic parody, but there is no doubting the group’s honest love of classic country music.
This is particularly evident through Ken Burns’ vocals. Burns, the group’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, possesses the throaty, strong-yet-vulnerable vocal quality that has marked great country vocalists from Merle Haggard to Dwight Yoakam. The rhythm section of bassist Dave Junker and drummer Thomas H. Crofts III drive the proceedings forward, propelling both the up-tempo rockers and the slower ballads with exacting precision. For the first record of a local band, the musicianship is outstanding throughout.
The songs themselves are both smart and emotionally resonant, at times recalling the best moments of George Jones, Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. “Buckeye Mile” is the album’s highlight; it’s cleverly written and beautifully sung. “Can’t Stop The Bleeding” is a close second — a mid-tempo rocker with soon-classic lyric “I hope that my corpse don’t scare your boyfriend.”
“It’s Hard To Win A Woman (When You’re Working For The Man),” as local writer Bob Hemauer said, may be the only country song ever written with the words “dialectic,” “apoplectic” and “alienation” in the same verse. “Sadder” numbers like “That’s Why I Take Pills” or “Visitation Rights” are, like most great country tunes, saved from sheer depressing gloom by a twisted sense of humor; in essence, the Junkers are laughing to keep from crying.
Lighter moments work just as well, including the roof-raising closer “Susan B. Anthony Dollar Rag,” recorded live at the recently departed O’Cayz Corral.
Anyone who’s witnessed the Junkers live show knows the jubilant power of the foursome in concert. Plus, any country band that can write drinking songs like “The Pint of No Return” must be worth something.
The Madison music scene, like the city itself, is filled with both hype and pleasant surprises. Thankfully, the Junkers represent one of the pleasant surprises, a straightforward good-time honky-tonk group that writes good songs and plays them well. There’s nothing flashy about them, nor is there anything that requires the use of a fully functional bullshit detector. Hunker Down is the best local album I’ve ever heard in a while, and I have a feeling The Junkers are only going to get better. Yee haw.