site Crooks | Live Music Capitol

Crooks | a primer on Outlaw Country

by Andy Gately

It’s hard to write rock ‘n’ roll when you’ve given your soul to the countrified blues. So discovered Austin songsmith Josh Mazour when he found himself impelled to shift his attention from former hard rock trio Radioland Murders to a project closer to his heart, and in the process spawn a new sound that would push the possibilities of modern country, attract a group of like-minded musical talents, and draw from a heretofore untapped well of lyrical imagery bountiful enough to sustain a half dozen lesser indie-billy outfits. Mazour explains the revelation in characteristically more modest terms: “I couldn’t write songs like that anymore when all I was listening to was Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams and old blues such as Blind Willie McTell and Lightnin’ Hopkins over and over. And drinking.”

Crooks began charting new sonic vistas in early 2008 with Mazour handling six string and vocals and Grant Anderson on skins, until Anderson left to seek his fortune in New York City, and was replaced by Rob Bacak. Rob’s spare drumming nicely accents Mazour’s forlorn howl, as he spins tales of honky tonk tragedies and truck stop Hamlets through whiskey-ravaged cords. The duo soon found the perfect complement with the acquisition of Sam Alberts, who shares singing duties while also contributing banjo, mandolin, blues harp, barrelhouse piano, Doug Sahm-esque bottleneck, and Morricone-flavored trumpet.

What results from this unholy trinity is somewhere between Willie Nelson and the soundtrack for a Cormac McCarthy novel, music that comes from a deep place steeped in Southern traditions, cowboy wisdom, juke joint soul-bearing and midnight confessions. Fans of everyone from The Flying Burrito Brothers to Calexico to Spindrift will find much to like in their sparse roadhouse style rich in twang and texture, pathos and atmosphere.

What really sets the band apart from feaux-country rock imitators is the level of honesty their stripped-down odes and lonely laments achieve through a raw minimalism of instrumentation that seems effortless and heartfelt, the genuine article. One listen to their self-titled debut LP, and you’ll know Crooks are the Real Deal Holyfield.

A country band in the original and truest sense of the term, you won’t find Crooks trafficking in Bud Lite-swilling sports bar anthems or boot scoot boogies. Not content to further clog CMT with radio-ready schmaltz, rural sentimentality, or nostalgia for a simpler time, these hounds are out to tree a different animal altogether. If you play a Crooks song backwards, you won’t get your dog, truck, and woman back. Though you might get your morality, humanity and sobriety.

The good geologist, like the amateur musicologist, knows that to unearth the best rock, one must look underground. And this holds just as true for outlaw country. So if you’re looking to wet your whistle at an undiscovered watering hole, give Crooks country a try. It’s just down the road apiece, off the well-worn path.

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