My eternal affection for the Taxpayers is well documented. While they were active, they had a certain magic to their music—a gonzo, anything goes approach with a rascally dash of political storytelling. They always knew who’s thumb they were under, and they made it their mission to meet it with a revolutionary shank. The Taxpayers have since dissipated, at least for now, but their members live on and continue to take on interesting projects. The latest of these interesting projects is the Trusty Snakes, which shares all of its members with the late, great Taxpayers, but take their music in a decidedly less punk direction. New American Frontier is an ode to country music, of all things, but it twangs and bangs with the best of them.
There’s more crossover between punk and country than we typically consider, even if both genres go after entirely different demographics. They’re both, at their best, music of the people—the downtrodden, the blue-collar, the average proletariat. They document these experiences through song. Through the years, punk rock has even adopted country’s popularly attributed melancholy—reveling in “woman done me wrong” songs with just as much heartache and half as much twang. The Trusty Snakes pull from an era of country that has been passed by for pop-production and star-studded duets—the end result is a joyful, sometimes winking, throwback with songs good enough to lasso even the most rigid punk purist.
To the artists’ credit, there’s a fine line to walk with a project like this. A certain level of awareness is required to acknowledge: that yes, these are punks playing country, and that yes, it’s at least a little funny. But also, with that comes the difficulty of not turning in an album of parody, which makes for an insubstantial, and transparent release. Luckily, I think the Trusty Snakes handle this well, and deliver a sincere effort at the genre, while leaning enough into their country-fied subject matter to keep it lively and self-aware. This isn’t a silly album, but it does have fun; and in spite of that, there are some moments of downright transcendence. Their somber cover of “Can I Sleep In Your Arms?” with its hair-raising harmonies are testament enough.
The Trusty Snakes, by taking on country, also get the rare opportunity to rewrite it in their own image, which is an interesting perspective shift for the genre. “Ain’t Gonna Change” documents the cycle of violence that surrounds an alcoholic’s weekly debauchery. The plainspoken manner of songwriting makes for a rather stark point of view, and by giving a voice to his victims (“Why said the children? Why said his woman? Why said his momma and pop?”), it paints a picture of inevitable small-scale tyranny, condemned even further in the song’s bridge. “Troubled Times” ends the album with a big, let’s come together singalong, which acts as the album’s formal thesis. It’s political, but also personal, it has the homespun comfort of a get-together with neighbors and friends. And here is where we see the true endgame of the Trusty Snakes—in the stirring gospel harmonies of country music—as reclamation of a voice.
And that’s ultimately what makes New American Frontier such a wonderful experiment. It has a vision to it that stretches beyond its songs. We’re in an era where we’re still sorting out what value music has to us. Back in the day, it was easy because it was worth the plastic it was burned to. But now—physical releases are falling out of fashion, streaming services place all the music in the world in your hands for the price of a CD a month, and albums as a whole are no longer how a lot of us consume music in the first place. For me, and maybe many others—but I’m honestly shooting from my own hip—music has become more ephemeral, perhaps even weightless in the modern world. But bands like the Trusty Snakes, whether they know it or not, are proving that music need not be cheap and weightless, that now that music is available to everyone, it can still be a people’s medium. It can be as earthy, honest, and yeah, even country, as we want it to be—because there’s no longer a giant machine threshing our wheat, and in its absence, we’re now picking our own grain—and maybe that’s how it needs to be for awhile. A genre once marked by documenting the lives and woes of the blue-collar and working-class became a vehicle, through the power of that Great Thresher, to reinforce right-wing politics and form an identity around them. Not as conspiracy, but as salesmanship—a means to define an audience and have an audience define themselves. And in its sputtering death throes, where the bonds of music, money, and identity have become decidedly shakier, the Trusty Snakes are here to bring us back to the land. New American Frontier is as apt a title as any, and for once in a long while, we have music for music’s sake.