Australia is one of just a few foreign lands where American country music has truly flourished. Maybe to execute country music really well it's necessary to wholeheartedly embrace certain uniquely American forms of poor taste — unabashed sentimentality, musical instruments and styles long since written off as dated — and make something artistic of them. In any case, Australia's Keith Urban is at the top of the charts, and another Aussie, Kasey Chambers, who appears at the Ark on Tuesday, August 16, is just about the reigning queen of country's alternative arm. And opening for her is a youthful trio, two-thirds Australian, that's been making quite a sensation.
The Greencards met at a gig in Austin and found that they liked each other's musical company. Mandolinist Kym Warner, fiddler Eamon McLoughlin, and bassist Carol Young, who takes most of the vocals, first turned up in town a few months ago, when they opened for Steppin' in It with sporadic advance billing. The audience, initially ready to get to the headliner, finally responded with that rarity, a standing ovation for the opening act. The Greencards may have played especially well that night because they had just gotten word that they'd be opening for Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson on their latest tour of minor-league baseball stadiums. Somebody's definitely been following the progress of this band.
The music on their new album, Weather and Water, falls roughly into the stylistic space of the Dixie Chicks' Home album, with originals that take the introspective language of Fleetwood Mac and strip it down to acoustic dimensions, a gorgeous cover of a Patty Griffin song ("What You Are"), and a few tremendous fiddle jams. The Greencards are one banjo short of being a bluegrass band, but they cultivate the instrumental precision, the pure sound, and the sadness of bluegrass. McLoughlin, the lone non-Aussie (he's from the UK), is a fiddler to watch, with a Celtic tinge to some of his playing and a commanding way of kicking off a phrase with a little explosion of notes. If he plays a piece called "Marty's Kitchen," listen for the Paganini quotation. The Greencards do quite a few long, slow numbers, and they've got the chops to keep the tension level high all the way through.
There's nothing that sounds particularly Australian about the Greencards, except for a few jokes about the pronunciation of "weather and water." Yet the age-old intelligence with which foreigners find the best in American music is at work here. For Kasey Chambers, as for many of the other younger country musicians who've come out of Australia recently, this has meant rediscovering the emotional blind alleys of classic honky-tonk. The music of the Greencards is more modern in style even as it remains entirely acoustic. Quite possibly the next stage in serious country music, they'll be headlining the Ark and bigger venues before long.
[Review published August 2005]