THE DIRTY SHIRTS – Two Dollar Turpentine
With their first-Tuesday-of-the-month happy hour gigs at the High Noon Saloon, the Dirty Shirts have been anchoring the venue’s pre-Gomeroke slot for three years now. During these shows I had heard them announce several songs as being originals, but I never realized they had enough for a record until they made one. It says something for lead singer Jeff Burkhart’s songwriting chops that these original tunes have always fit right in with the classic country that they cover. You can hear the influence of Cash, Kristofferson, Dylan and other outlaws in the eleven songs that make up Two Dollar Turpentine.
“Love is Just a Word” aches with the same feeling of loneliness as Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” even though the cause is different. Coincidentally, that same song, made famous by Johnny Cash, was inspiration for their name (“I fumbled through my closet for my cleanest dirty shirt”). The Man in Black certainly would have approved of the Shirts’ train song, “Mean Conductor.” The narrator of this song is riding the train instead of watching it from a prison cell, as in Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” but that doesn’t mean he is any closer to home. The key element to any train song is the high and lonesome harmonica, which in this case comes courtesy of drummer Colin Bazsali. Seeing him blow the harp while sitting behind the kit is an unlikely highlight of the live show. Meanwhile, “Open Road” brings to mind Planet Waves –era Dylan.
The songs take their time unfolding. Only one track falls short of the three-minute mark, while most hover near four minutes; this leaves plenty of room for the musicians to stretch. There is no shortage of talent in this band, but perhaps the most obvious is lap steel/slide guitar player Kurt Kellesvig. His guitar work makes “How I Don’t Think of You” sound like an instant honky tonk classic, though lyrics like “I don’t worry about you after I’ve had a few, I’m thinking about how I don’t think of you” cement the claim. The steel makes “Shifting Light of Day,” co-written with Texan Owen Temple, an instantly addictive slice of western swing. The Dirty Shirts were just returning the favor after one-time Madison resident Temple included another of their collaborations, “Broken Heart Land,” on last year’s Dollars and Dimes. Guitarist Ted Weigl shines across the entire disc, but especially on “Keep Moving,” his assertive electric follows the acoustic intro and then takes charge.
Opening track “Jimmy” combines both of their talents to perfect effect. It also marks the only appearance of fiddler Brian O’Donnell (who plays with Bazsali and Burkhart in the Barley Brothers), a shame since a few other tracks seem to ask for the fiddle treatment. Producer Brian Daly of DNA Studios keeps the production crisp throughout, allowing each instrument to be heard, right down to the thump of Pat Logterman’s upright bass. Standout final track “Little Rain” benefits most from his skill. Even though the Dirty Shirts have no aspirations of country music adoration, I can easily imagine this track on country radio. It’s certainly better than most of the stuff in current rotation.