Album Review

Exploring the great beyond with Vancouver’s favourite Zen Cowboys

Real Ponchos - To The Dusty World


Review by Douglas Heselgrave


In ‘Lila’, Robert Pirsig’s sequel to ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, the author spends a lot of time deconstructing the myth of the American cowboy and essentially comes to the conclusion that this western archetype didn’t materialize out of the ether, but rather, was an amalgamation of diverse cultural ideals.  Although, Pirsig primarily argues that it was the lifestyle and behaviour of the American Indians that shaped frontier values, he also draws parallels between the cowboys’ stoicism and resolve with Buddhist ideas of emptiness and transcendence. 

It may sound like a stretch, but the connections between Zen and country music go a long way back.  If you go online and ‘Google’ ‘Zen cowboy’, the first thing you’re going to see pop up are interviews and videos of Jeff Bridges strumming his way to three chords and the truth.  Of course, you’ll find lots of ‘Tao of Willie’ stoned wisdom and some pithy quotes from Chuck Pyle, the cowboy minimalist songwriter who wrote some pretty crucial tunes like ‘Drifter’s Wind’ back in the day.  When I consider the intersections of Zen and cowboy culture, the first example that usually comes to mind is Slim, the lead hand in John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ who expressed a ‘gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke.’ Like an old Zen patriarch, Slim ‘heard more than was said to him and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.’ 

In the above quote, Steinbeck was describing the calm self-possession of the lead rancher in his novel, but he could just as easily have been talking about the essence of good country music.  Turn on the radio and listen to a modern country station. In a lot of songs, words blow around like dry leaves, are wasted and spent foolishly. Witty rhymes, inane fist pumping choruses. Nothing of value is communicated.  The direct, shot to the heart, minimalism of artists like Hank Williams, Bill and Charlie Monroe or Bob Wills is nowhere in evidence.  And, while it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Real Ponchos, a young country outfit from Vancouver are going to singlehandedly bring the music back to its minimalist roots, ‘To The Dusty World,’ the ensemble’s fourth album is one of the most interesting and engaging country-inspired albums I have heard in quite some time.

And, while it is certainly true that in recent years there has been no shortage of young musicians who have been influenced by The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and The Band to go out and play country music, it’s also true that this new wave of roots, traditionalist country artists has also created a whole new set of clichés. The result is that it’s often difficult to choose or distinguish one group from another. Understanding that, it would be easy to pass up Real Poncho’s music from amongst the overwhelming number of listening choices out there, but that would really be a shame because ‘To The Dusty World’ is a rare and special recording.

‘Real Ponchos’ features the singing and songwriting of Ben Arsenault and Emile Scott, two young Vancouver natives, who cover a lot of stylistic and lyrical ground between them.  Emile’s songs tend to ‘duke it out’ more as he explores the stops along the way through love, loss and redemption, while Ben’s offer more gentle ruminations on the vagaries of time and the cycles of existence.  Rounded out by Mark Jenkins on pedal steel and the rhythm section of Emlyn Scherk on drums and Michael Wegler on bass, Real Ponchos achieve their sound without any of the showboating and overplaying that brings down a lot of roots and jam band music. The musicianship is assured, but never flashy, and above all Real Panchos get a great groove by playing as a group and leaving their egos behind.

In many ways, listening to ‘To The Dusty World’ is reminiscent of an imaginary Grateful Dead concert with Bill Frisell rather than Jerry Garcia playing the guitar.  A mixture of instrumental tracks and fully realized songs, each selection on the album flows seamlessly into the next to create an ambience and listening experience that is very inviting.  Completely self-contained like Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or Willie Nelson’s ‘The Red Headed Stranger,’ the music on ‘To The Dusty World’ expresses a deep understanding of compositional dynamics and delivers far more than it asserts. Like an antidote to all the hype and noise that fills our lives, the songs and soundscapes on ‘To the Dusty World’ begin without fanfare and never shout to be heard. Suggestive and light one minute, mythic and dark the next, Real Poncho’s music is characterized by contrast and transition.  It’s music that entices the listener with its open-ended melodic structures.  At times, it’s easy to step right into the compositions; the sounds are conventionally appealing and engaging. The subdued interplay between pedal steel and electric guitars captures a sense of vastness and space and communicates a quality of longing that is both hurtful and optimistic. 

‘To The Dusty World’ begins simply enough with three fairly straight ahead, guitar tracks, ‘No Show’, ‘Cherchez Les Femmes’ and ‘Flatline Rose’ that demonstrate the group’s substantial vocal and instrumental chops.  They’re engaging songs, performed with heart and soul, but it’s not until the fourth track, ‘Passing Through’ that the magic really begins. It is a lovely spacious instrumental that brings to mind Bill Frisell in a meditative mood, that provides the opportunity for Real Ponchos to create a fully immersive experience that really show what sets them apart.  Seemingly effortless in its flow, the composition offers a master class in how sometimes less is more.  As the balanced elegant counterpoints fade to suggest rainy weather, a Bill Evans melody heard from afar, the lush and understated ‘Still The Same Fool’ emerges out of ‘Passing Through’s’ dying echo to gently insinuate itself upon the listener.  Underpinned by dreamy flourishes of pedal steel, it is an extraordinarily simple, yet profound piece of work. A song that effortlessly bridges the spaces between Hank Williams, The Grateful Dead and latter day Bob Dylan, it is without question ‘To The Dusty World’s’ high water mark that touches on just about everything I love about music.  From there, the band devolves into ‘Stillness’, the longest song on the album.  Clocking in at just under ten minutes, the song begins with lazy rhythm guitars playing over a Jaco Pastorious inspired bass line that establish the foundation for some very trippy pedal steel work from Mark Jenkins. Just when things threaten to slip off into the abyss, Ben Arsenault’s vocals come in to bring the listener back as he sings about his decision to ‘stop to focus on impermanence again’ without a trace of irony. As the verses weave in and out of the instrumental sections, the listener gradually relaxes, perhaps to consider vague traces of old loves, forgotten dates on the calendar, clothes pinned out to dry just before the rain.  Thoughts are difficult to catch as the music dissolves again into the final, flowing instrumental track, ‘To The Dusty World’ after which the album is named.  It begins subtly enough as the different instruments explore and recap many of the songs’ musical themes, but part way through, the melodies disintegrate into a kind of psychedelic ennui that is met head on by Arsenault and Scott’s guitars.  A kind of outer space shoot out takes place as wordlessly, musical paradigms deconstruct and a wild, brief flash of Crazy Horse dissonance brings the whole album crashing down into a vast abyss of empty white noise.  Depending on your mettle or your tolerance for that type of thing, it’s either the record’s greatest moment or its only misstep.  I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

‘To The Dusty World’ deserves to be heard. Real, unaffected and just a little bit dangerous, I don’t think I’ll hear a better country album anywhere in 2017.