Songs We Made Up
Kansas City is in the midst of an acoustic duo renaissance. Victor and Penny (‘20s and ‘30s swing), Betse and Clarke (old-time breakdowns), and more recently Kasey Rausch and Marco Pascolini’s country duo configuration have made it clear that two people and a cloud of dust work just fine. The Matchsellers, with Andrew Morris on guitar and Julie Bates on fiddle, have landed on that well-plowed ground with a bluegrass sound and an idiosyncratic sense of humor, one skewed roughly 23-29 degrees from the perpendicular.
Morris and Bates met while teaching English in Leipzig, Germany, and it’s easy to imagine them busking on a European street corner, making room to play American music their own way on a whole different continent. (The German crowd’s reaction is harder to imagine.) The fourteen tracks on Songs We Made Up, fleshed out with Matthew Hawkins’ banjo and Chris DeVictor’s doghouse bass, have echoes of the Wilders’ bluegrass and Western Swing — and lyrics like nobody else in town.
The Matchsellers are frequently hilarious, and that’s a cautious description. “Funny” is a tough mark for anyone, let alone musicians, to land. Teeter too far toward “fun,” “comical” or “humorous,” and a group risks dismissal as enjoyable but trifling. Swing confidently into “clever,” and a band tiptoes through the twin acid vats of “annoying” (too clever) and “arch” (too mean). The Matchsellers avoid those hazards by grabbing absurdity by the belt loops and calmly walking it back over to where we all live. If that fails, they just come straight out and say all those troubling things everyone was already thinking.
Take “The Cracker Song,” for instance. Co-written by Bates and Morris, it’s about falling in love with someone irritating (and possibly criminal). Its opening lines: “I asked you to leave/but you ate all my crackers/along with my fancy Swiss cheese,” which is ridiculous, but real. “The Riverboat Song” is about a friend who takes a boat built from “a bunch of trash” from Kansas City to St. Louis. Realistically, everybody close to the Missouri River knows that guy (even if it isn’t the same guy).
The best example of their cattywampus world view is “Dirt and Beard Hair,” made even funnier by the fact that it’s written and sung by Bates, who throws her heart into the line “I want to kick off my shoes/and grow my beard long.”
A celebration of summer festival life, it’s a barefaced tribute to the grodiest aspects of a musical experience where “the whiskey tastes like dirt and beard hair.” Truly, no matter which side of the beard you’re on, it’s as yicky as it sounds.
The Matchsellers have a serious edge, but it’s in all the leaving, losing and down-the-road moments that frame each song. The closing track, “Gohlis Waltz,” features Bates’s heartbreaking fiddle (or violin, here) on an instrumental that’s as mournful (and German) as Texas Hill Country. It’s easy to imagine Morris and Bates’ next batch of songs played straight … but in the meantime, their brand new point of view is a rewarding surprise.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.