By Jason SchneiderDaniel Romano wants people to know he's serious about singing country music. Sure, there are other rockers who have put on cowboy hats and rhinestone suits, but not with the degree of reverence Romano displays on his new album, Come Cry With Me, a remarkably fresh sounding collection of original songs, which nonetheless channel a half-century-old approach.
It's music the Welland, ON native says has been a part of his life since childhood, temporarily set aside when he formed Attack In Black in 2003. By the time Romano launched You've Changed Records with band-mate Ian Kehoe and Constantines guitarist Steve Lambke in 2007, his work had taken a firmly rustic turn, as heard on his first two acclaimed solo albums, Workin' For The Music Man and Sleep Beneath The Willow.
With Come Cry With Me — picked up by U.S. roots label Normaltown Records — Romano's evolution as a classic country crooner is nearly complete, both sonically and visually. "The only thing that worries me is that the layman may interpret all this as being hokey," Romano says. "I don't really know what I can do to stop that, but there's nothing ironic about what I'm doing. Each of us in Attack In Black liked different music, and I was always on the folk/country side of things. We did start out as a punk band, but once we allowed our individual tastes to blend together, that's what our sound became."
A big step toward fully embracing the country aesthetic is acquiring a recognizable instrument, and Romano's acoustic guitar of choice had to be turned into something unmistakably his. "I was in Cosmic Dave's in Sudbury and saw this Gibson on the wall that looked super-old even though it was made in 1995," he explains. "All the lacquer was cracked and I was told the guy who owned it played it outside all the time. Somehow, that made it sound great, and it was really cheap, so I bought it and fell in love with it.
"Later, I was talking to Shotgun Jimmie's brother Strong John, who apprenticed as a luthier and I asked him if he could inlay my name on the fretboard. He did a great job with that, so I drew up a design to line the whole body in pearl inlay, put a pearl inlay trillium in the headstock, redo the Gibson logo, make a new pick guard, and build a new bridge with trilliums in it. It came back while I was on tour. My mom sent me a picture of my dad holding it, and I was just blown away. I play that guitar at every show."
For recording Come Cry With Me, Romano employed Nashville tuning on his guitar, the long-held country and western practice of replacing the top four wound strings with lighter gauges from a 12-string set in order to tune an octave higher and achieve a brighter sound. Surprisingly though, he says this isn't the guitar he prefers to write songs on.
"I write most of my songs on a gut-string guitar. It's quieter and less distracting when I'm trying to sing. Sometimes I frustrate myself because my songwriting process is pretty quick. If I'm strumming away on a steel string I can get mad easily. But with the gut-string, I'm really just concentrating on getting the melody and the words right. Most people think country music is simple, but when you start deconstructing it, it's incredibly complex."
When it comes to laying down electric guitar parts, Romano also goes the unique Nashville route with a Fender Telecaster installed with a B-Bender, a gizmo invented by former Byrds Gene Parsons and the late Clarence White that mimics the sound of a pedal steel. "I was corresponding with Gene to have him put one in my Tele, which was pretty cool in itself, but as I was making up my mind I found a beautiful old American-made Tele with a B-Bender in Hamilton. I was afraid to find out its age, because having a B-Bender put in actually decreases the value a lot. But I love it, and I've played it constantly since I got it three years ago."
Coming up with an overall vintage sound on the album was another learning experience, and the final mix — after several unsatisfactory attempts — ended up not that much different from the sound of Romano's basic tracks. While he knows that it's impossible to completely extract what's in the grooves of records by his honky-tonk heroes, Romano remains determined to get as close as he can, if only to pay tribute in his own way.
"This has to be the path I follow because I'm sitting on so much material," he says. "I finished this album two years ago, and I've written 40 songs since then. It's definitely the style I feel most comfortable with, and I'm not going to change anytime soon."