Few musicians carry on the true spirit of American roots music the way Chris Buhalis does. Younger players working in what’s been branded alt-country or indie folk look back on American musical tradition with a sense of whimsy, while many older musicians have the sound down but are most interested in starting a party on the dance floor. Both often neglect the hardscrabble, blue-collar stories the music was originally intended to tell—the younger folks because they’ve never lived them, the older ones perhaps because they’re tired of them. At forty-six, Buhalis has lived the working-class life and clearly hasn’t grown tired of putting it down in song.
Buhalis’s new record, Big Car Town, finds inspiration in the Ann Arbor songwriter’s own time working in a factory (the title track) and his family’s blue-collar life before him (“Daddy Worked the High Steel”). His observations are wry as ever, and, in the spirit of his hero Woody Guthrie, ever distrustful of the powers that be. “Man on the TV wants my vote,” Buhalis snarls on the title track. “If truth was singin’ he couldn’t hold a note.”
Buhalis’s recent return to the studio and stage has been somewhat improbable, following a 2013 injury sustained while working at his day job as a carpenter. A table saw accident severely damaged his thumb and three fingers on his left hand, including a split straight down his middle finger. Buhalis couldn’t play guitar at all for a year, and his ability remained limited for another year after that. He’s returned to the stage with a newfound sense of grace and pleasure in his music. There are plenty of performers out there who think they can hold a stage alone with a guitar, not realizing that’s actually a difficult thing to do. Buhalis makes it look easy. His voice is strong with or without a microphone, whether adopting a plaintive tone for contemplative ballads or a swaggering howl for upbeat rockers. His guitar work is simple but assured, relying more on chordal arrangements than intricate fingerpicking.
But the best vocals in a Buhalis show aren’t sung. The man is an incurable raconteur, and every song seems to be followed by a spoken interlude almost as long. Sometimes it’s a story about how the next tune came to be (“This is the only song I ever wrote that got its ass off the couch and went out to work for a living,” Buhalis cracks before playing the minor-key pro-union ballad “Employee 1209,” which the UAW licensed for a training video). Other times a story about one song segues into a story about another—and Buhalis winds up playing that song instead. His anecdotes are peppered with tales of personal encounters with some of his heroes, like Bruce Springsteen and Townes Van Zandt (who sang on one of Buhalis’s records).
In these moments it’s hard not to draw a comparison between those folk-rock legends and the musician standing before you on the stage. Buhalis’s melodies will stick in your head as well as any Springsteen song, and his lyrics tell stories as plainspoken and thoughtful as anything Van Zandt wrote, but his easygoing, self-effacing stage manner is all his own. Buhalis doesn’t merely emulate his musical forebears—he’s made from the same mold.
Chris Buhalis returns to the Ark on Friday, March 11.