God bless 'em: The guys in Raleigh's Hearts and Daggers—singer/ guitarist/ songwriter Kevin Wolfe, lead guitarist Ben Bucklew (recently replaced by Brit Tim Shearer), bassist Steve Judge and drummer Marshall Miller—don't make it easy for themselves. It's not just that the quartet traffics in a brand of bruised-and-boozed rocking country that could be shoehorned to fit under the alt-country tent, a canopy that has either threatened to collapse for 10 years or really did collapse 10 years ago. Nope, Wolfe and company flirt with danger right out of the gate on their debut LP, ...And Then There Was Dust. Opener "Daddy Said" hinges on a chorus lined with Johnny Cash references. What a double risk: the prospect of being compared to Johnny Cash songs and to other songs about Johnny Cash. They don't stop there, later rolling out tunes starring iron horses, prison bars, bottles and activities that put folks under the green, green grass of home.
Such spunk and steel is admirable. It'd be much easier to write the best song ever about, say, Orangina than whiskey, or the greatest ode to a Segway instead of a train. But listeners prone to stream-of-consciousness wanderings might find themselves distracted by thoughts of Tom Joad's ghost materializing through the Oklahoma dust, of the modern-day Woody-isms of Butch Hancock (whose "Boxcars" is given a fine reading here), of resurrected Dashboard Saviors and of current kindred spirits like the Old 97's and Mike Herrera's Tumbledown.
Here's some advice, brave listener, and it's much more yoga than it is Yoakam or Young: Take a deep breath. Clear your mind. Accept that there's much country classicism and homage afoot. Now, focus on Dust's plentiful standouts. "Highway 1" benefits from genuine deep emotion, and "16 Whole Dollars" wins with well-placed Hammond organ. They sport the album's best hooks and choruses. "Cold Cold Ground" demonstrates that the band can handle a roots-rock ballad, too, and the atmospheric "Bluefield Breakdown"—based on a Rick Mulkey poem and featuring guest banjo and pedal steel from Chatham County Line—is their nod to experimentation.
What about "Daddy Said," that Cash-heavy cut? Turns out, it works great. Its chug isn't designed to be imitation, but it is appealing and affectionate. The same, ultimately, can be said for the stories told in the song. Johnny blessed 'em all.
Hearts and Daggers release ...And Then There Was Dust at Tir Na Nog Friday, Jan. 22, at 10 p.m. John Howie and the Rosewood Bluff open the $5 show.