On the opening track of the Linemen's first CD, the singer finds himself caught in a downward country spiral: There's no way out because he has too many goddamn records. "Through the night, through side one, through side two," Kevin Butterfield, the band's principal songwriter, croons on the chorus, as a room full of LPs spins him deeper and deepera into heartbreak. As he tells it, the girl next door, listening through the walls, knows every word to "Crazy Arms" even though she doesn't know Ray Price from Vincent Price.
With the self-released album Through Side One, the Linemen have raised the bar for the St. Louis country scene and they've done so without sinking into predictable punk attitude, all-too-familiar rockabilly fashions or the winking, hiccupping twang-core that plays well in south-city dives but is as far from the emotional core of country as the Wichita lineman is from home. Butterfield's warm, supple tenor with a fine high register, like a young Don Gibson or a less-uptight George Strait caresses original songs of regret, towns that barely exist, losses without second chances and the comforting smell of smoke and whiskey. Guitarist Scott Swartz finds some echoes of the Flying Burrito Brothers with a few fuzz-tone runs but mostly lets his pedal-steel shine around the melodies. Drummer John Baldus (also of Waterloo and the Dirty South) and bassist Greg Lamb (also of Magnolia Summer) lay back and let the songs unfold with a steady throb of sweet, sweet pain.
The Linemen formed in the fall of 2005, after Butterfield and Swartz met at the now-defunct Frederick's Music Lounge. Swartz was sitting in with the country-rock band Ten High, and Butterfield was doing a last-minute solo set. The duo then enlisted Baldus and Lamb, with the intent of recording just a four-song demo something to get gigs, maybe, or tunes to put up on a Web site. But after christening themselves the Linemen and playing their first gig in January 2006, the bandmates figured out that perhaps they had something more permanent.
Or as Lamb puts it: "It sounded good, so we kept going. We didn't realize how good Scott was." In fact, Swartz who is also recording with power-pop misfits the Meteor Pilots and played in mid-'90s roots-rock band the Neverminds had built his own studio, including his own pre-amps and amplifiers, the kind of geekery that's more a hallmark of country music than people realize. Which makes sense, when one realizes he cut his country teeth in college in Columbia, Missouri.
"I did the four-sets-a-night country thing, when line-dancing was starting," Swartz says. "Around Mizzou, there were those warehouse places. I literally learned to play steel on the job, screwing around with it at gigs. That was the Randy Travis, Ricky Van Shelton era. Dwight Yoakam was on the radio, so it was a pretty good time."
Butterfield hails from northwest Missouri, a region that still hosts regular Opry-style shows, and where his father is a hardcore country bassist.
"When I go up there, I'm the junior guy," Butterfield says. "I'm the guy who doesn't know anything. I'll get up and do a couple of songs, but those guys really know it. Maybe in St. Louis I know something, but we're still learning as we go. I've been in St. Louis a little more than two years, and I've yet to hear a country shuffle like Ray Price's."
That's not entirely true, of course; both Diesel Island and Scott Kay and the Continentals can pull off something close to that. But in the background is always the specter of rock & roll, country's sometimes nemesis, sometimes blood brother. The Linemen embrace the soulful center of country without exaggerating or distorting it and yet their approach isn't really straight, and certainly not straight honky-tonk.
"I've seen honky-tonk bands," Lamb says. "We don't do what they do. I'm still learning to play that style. We're not aiming for that. To compare us to the [now-defunct] Rock House Ramblers, we're not like that. It's not straight-ahead."
"I told these guys when we started, I don't know anything about country," Baldus adds. "I'm gonna try to do the best I can, fake it, learn as I play, but I'm not a traditional country drummer. I have more respect for some country drummers than rock drummers. There's a lot more control. I'm really working hard to figure out the volume. With rock you can just bash a lot. When I'm playing lighter, it's a struggle to find the right thing for the song. I don't think it's simple."
Over time they've added atypical covers to their sets: Willie Nelson's "Are You Sure?," Ray Price's "The Other Woman," Ricky Skaggs' "I Can't Help It," and a slow waltz version of "Yes It Is" by the Beatles. They're not really a dance band, but they still make people move, though with a subtlety and disregard for volume that separates them from most bar bands who rev up a Johnny Cash number.
Butterfield had never written much before moving to St. Louis in 2003, and so the new album includes his first attempts at songwriting. "Five Years Later," perhaps as close as the band comes to a bar-room weeper, was the very first song he'd ever finished. That's surprising, even to his bandmates.
"We've never really talked about this. Is it still that hard for you that you don't talk about it to your girlfriend?" Baldus asks.
"Yes, I have one broken heart in my past," Butterfield answers. "And she did inspire the first few songs I wrote. Is that still what inspires me now? Well, I don't know, maybe."
Whatever their inspiration, the Linemen have found a way to make the classic forms and style of country music resonate emotionally, even seriously, which is enough to distinguish them from an overcrowded roots scene. "I get a little tired of the tongue-in-cheek approach," Butterfield says. "Honestly, I think a lot of it is that a lot of people in St. Louis haven't really heard country sung straight. They always hear the Saturday Night Live version."