The Ann Arbor roots-country band Hoodang grew from a collaboration between singer-guitarist David Rossiter and bassist Rich Rickman. Rossiter is now backed by multi-instrumentalists Drew Howard and John Latini and drummer Pat Bill, stalwarts of a local alt-country scene that over the last few years has grown to a point where national promoters are going to start paying attention. But Rossiter’s singing and songwriting are at Hoodang’s center. If you like the parade of ornery hard-luck characters who have wound their way through Steve Earle’s albums, or the tough, edgy romantic characterizations of the grassroots Ontario iconoclast Fred Eaglesmith, be aware that there’s a local figure who can play in their league. And he’s got a dry leather strap of a voice to go with his songs.

Rossiter is a storyteller first and foremost. He has a few honky-tonk tunes like the uptempo-swing “Jump Start My Heart,” but even these seem to have a tale of woe lurking in the background (“Feel like I’m ready for the scrap heap/Ain’t nothin’ much to salvage anyway”). More often he sketches an individual in quite a bit of detail, often inhabiting the subject in first person. “Memory Lapse” is about a prisoner who has committed a terrible crime while so drunk that “even if you’d asked me, I couldn’t’ve told you my name,” and:

It makes my blood run cold
As the Red River in December
To think I’m servin’ time
For a crime I don’t remember.

As the song goes on, instrumental solos let the detail sink in for the listener — and then bits and pieces of the crime begin to come back to the man. Rossiter has a rare knack for the key to a good murder ballad: it has to keep you transfixed by the crime but also a bit off balance by the unfolding of events.

Several of Rossiter’s songs adopt the device of sketching a simple scene and then filling in its backstory in a long series of verses. His music has the quality of an ice sculpture in which a hidden idea has been discovered by hacking away its covering — but it’s also full of striking individual images. Probably my favorite Hoodang song is the very compact “Roadhouse Shuffle.” That song tells of a dying war veteran and alcoholic barroom musician who’s “been doin’ the roadhouse shuffle twenty years or more. . . . Each year brought death closer in, and soon it would be his time.” In four breathtaking stanzas, Rossiter takes the man from the battlefield and the loss of his wife to redemption in the form of a foundling he hears crying outside a bar — “Jordan’s River in a baby’s tears, to wash away his sin.”

Hoodang’s eponymously titled debut album came out a couple of years ago, and those of us who follow this kind of songwriting have been awaiting more material. Some of it will be ready for unveiling on Tuesday, January 9, at the Ark, where Hoodang’s concert will be recorded for a new live CD. I heard Rossiter try out some new songs at Beaner’s coffeehouse last fall, and I can report that he’s exploring new songwriting forms, including the straight historical song (he has a great one about Michigan’s James Jesse Strang, self-proclaimed king of Beaver Island in the nineteenth century), gothic horror, and even a country barroom duet that’s pretty romantic.

[Review published January 2007]