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Catherine Irwin - Cut Yourself A Switch

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Artist: Catherine Irwin

Album: Cut Yourself A Switch

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Nov. 11, 2002

Are You Ready For the Country?

Like most white, Northern, middle-class children of the 80s, I grew up loathing country music. To me, country was dirty, uneducated – a Southern thing that inhabited a decidedly lower rank on the scale of cultural relevance. Now, I was no serious music snob – classical and jazz never really caught my ear either – yet, nonetheless, country still represented something lower, a plebeian form of music. Many a stoned night was spent responding to questions of musical preference with the cursory “Well, I’m into everything, really – everything except country, that is.”

However, a couple of years ago things started to change. It was fall. Around me the year was decaying and I began to juxtapose my hip-young indie-kid image with my embarrassingly rural roots. Added to this, I’d fallen for groups like Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks, and realized that teenage obsessions, such as The Lemonheads, were playing music that contained more than a slight nod to this blacklisted genre. Sure, more often than not there was more than a touch of water in their whiskey, but it was still country. Add to this the troubled heartbreak of Gram Parsons, a touch of Hank Williams and George Jones, and learning to differentiate between the saccharine pop of country radio and true hillbilly music. Before long, I was hooked.

See, country music is dirty, uncomfortably white and male, a product of everything un-hip. Yet in this white-blues, there lies the essence of love, struggle and loss, elements more universal than the high-brow sprawl of Sonic Youth. I wasn’t – and am still not – much of a patriot, but the music was undeniably American, unwaveringly true.

Catherine Irwin makes real country. This is music that wouldn’t fit in on The Nashville Network. This music does not wear gold lame suits. Co-leader of alt.country badasses Freakwater, Irwin writes and sings in a style not often heard in the past 25 years. Sparse and lonesome, hers are songs of lost love, financial insecurity and long hours spent at the dark end of a bar.

Cut Yourself a Switch is Irwin’s first recording without her Freakwater cohorts. As bleak as a Kansas winter, Switch is a powerfully vivid album. The songs feature guitar, bass and a touch of fiddle, all topped off by Irwin’s whiskey and cigarette drawl. Irwin’s seven tunes are little pills of depression, rife with breaking hearts, empty bottles and the open loneliness of the Midwest.

Along with her cast of originals, Irwin adds an equally desolate batch of covers including Elvis’ “Power of My Love,” and The Carter Family’s suicide poem “Will You Miss Me.” Through all, Irwin draws the listener into a desperate world of pain and redemption.

So yeah, country has a bad name. What can you expect from a genre whose best work is almost half a century old. Yet country is neither dead, nor confined to the twang-pop of neo-hicks like Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. Leave it to Catherine Irwin – an old soul singing timeless songs – to resurrect true country once again. Classic.

By Ethan Covey

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