Corndaddy plays its twentieth anniversary show at the Ark on January 11. When they started, Americana music was hardly a category, and the group looked back to what used to be called country rock: to the serious-minded later Byrds and Gram Parsons more than to the Eagles. From the Byrds, especially, they took the idea of mixing country music with the sounds of rock’s British Invasion. Over twenty years they’ve elaborated on this idea on several fronts and have amassed a body of songs that are unfailingly catchy and rewarding on multiple hearings. Although rooted in the past, their music doesn’t traffic in nostalgia, and all their songs are originals.
Musically, Corndaddy expands on the Byrds’ model in two directions. Kevin Brown’s lead guitar is what you’ll notice first: it’s not innocent of what’s happened in rock music since the Byrds’ heyday, and there are shades of power pop, straight Midwestern rock and roll, Americana, and even the country-punk hybrid known as twangcore–another sound that Corndaddy was doing before it had a name. The band’s harmonies also reflect the use of modes, chords of the third and sixth, and other developments in rock harmony that have come along since the three-chords-and-the-truth days. From the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” to Corndaddy’s “Rainbow on a Girl” is a short journey in one way, a long one in another.
Some songs reflect a single idea, sometimes with wry humor. “Elvis Bluegrass Boy” imagines a kinder fate for the King of Rock and Roll:
If Elvis had been a bluegrass boy,
Had Bill Monroe put him on the road,
Showed him “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,”
It might have turned it all around.
Other songs pair a simple lyric hook–“Don’t you go runnin’ down my heart”–with a more ambiguous consequent–“I’m up here and I keep trying.” The result is a sound that retains the basic rhythmic appeal of country and rock roots, while giving audiences enough to chew on to keep them coming back for two decades.
Several members of the band have contributed songs, and the mixture of song models, guitar styles, and lyric ideas yields a lot of possible combinations that Corndaddy has explored over the years. They’ve had jobs and families to tend, but they’re one of those bands that you wish had time to reach beyond Michigan, because their music has been consistently fun and fresh. They tap into an underestimated vein of Ann Arbor country music that runs back to Bill Kirchen’s days with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The Corndaddy 20th Anniversary Show will be a place to reflect on and absorb how that innovative music has survived and evolved.