Rock and country have always made strange bedfellows. Ostensibly polar opposites musically and yet there is a long history of bands trying to blend the two. From Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern rock, to Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt, to the current rise of crossover bands like Blackberry Smoke or The Cadillac Three, countrified rock music is nothing unusual. There is a shared outsider mentality to both genres that has lent itself to blending the two sounds. DevilDriver have taken things one step further however, taking their favourite country songs and giving them the full metal treatment, roping in friends from both metal and country to help them out along the way. This is not DevilDriver go country so much as country goes DevilDriver.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a gimmick, or even a cynical marketing ploy - country is one of the few genres where people still actually buy albums, after all - but one listen disabuses you of that notion. There is no concession to populism here, it is full on from start to finish. Without prior knowledge you’d be hard pushed to recognise these tracks as country at all. Each song is played with utter conviction and with the utmost seriousness. Even the yippee-kay-ays of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ are growled out as if heavy metal yodelling was a perfectly normal, everyday occurrence.
As is often the case with cover albums the results vary. Opener ‘Country Heroes’, originally by Hank III, is an understandable choice being that it’s about drinking whiskey and listening to the greats of country music - which is exactly how you imagine the idea for this album came about - but the verses get a little drowned by the swirling maelstrom of guitars as the band try to reconcile their musical style with what is, at its heart, a gentle country lament. Perhaps one of Hank’s more raucous hillbilly numbers would’ve suited DevilDriver more.
Other songs work much better however. Their version of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’ won’t please the purists but the Revelation-inspired lyrics and DevilDriver’s full on approach combine surprisingly well. Again on ‘The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised’ and ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me’ the style and subject matter come together excellently.
If anything though this album’s main flaw is that it is perhaps a little too metal. While you would never say DevilDriver, or country music for that matter, were renowned for their subtlety, a little more nuance would’ve gone a long way. Country is often a storytelling genre and sometimes the stories are lost in the brutal attack of Dez Fafara’s vocals, and bizarrely on ‘Copperhead Road’ - a song that Steve Earle himself described as “a blend of heavy metal and bluegrass” - the big, meaty riff at his heart is muted under all the white noise. That’s not to say DevilDriver’s version is bad, it’s a blast of a song, but it feels a little like an opportunity lost.
Taken individually the songs are hit and miss but as a whole the album holds together surprisingly well. On repeated listens the strength of the songs starts to shine through and the whole concept seems to make more sense. You really start to get a feel for what the band were attempting to do; DevilDriver trying to be country would have been awful, but DevilDriver being DevilDriver but playing country songs actually works much better than you might think. It is a whiskey-soaked album of uproarious devilment, and what more could you ask for from the band?
It’s not perfect, but it’s a bold and commendable experiment that sees a band both step out of and embrace their comfort zone. And you know what? By and large it works. Somehow.
Ghost Riders in the Sky
I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised
If Drinking Don’t Kill Me
The Man Comes Around
A Thousand Miles From Nowhere
Dad’s Gonna Kill Me
A Country Boy Can Survive
Dez Fafara – Vocals
Mike Spreitzer – Guitar
Neal Tiemann – Guitar
Austin D’Amond – Drums
Diego Ibarra – Bass
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