Thomas admits that as a kid “I didn’t really like country music because it was uncool. My mother listened to it constantly but my intellectual father scorned it as ‘prole-feed.’ She liked Eddie Rabbitt, Mickey Gilley, that kind of shit, and I heard it constantly on the radio until I went back to my hometown of Buffalo to go to college in 1991. I didn’t start listening to radio country again until 2015, and let me tell you: things changed a lot during that time.”
Sutherlin has its origins in 2015, when Thomas was revisiting some classic country records by Gram Parsons, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, all of whom are well-respected in hip Portland. “And then one day I happened to turn on the radio and turn the dial to the local modern country station, 98.7 The Bull FM, because I was curious about what country music sounded like. I was completely mesmerized. What the hell was this strange, slick, overproduced music with its enormous hooks? Why was every song about taking a girl to the riverbank? When did country music artists get so into Tom Petty, rap music, hair metal, and 90’s rock? Who were these strange singers whose voices had been polished and auto-tuned within an inch of their lives? I started to learn about Joe Nichols, Florida Georgia Line, Little Big Town, Chris Janson (currently blocking me on Twitter), Chris Young, et al.”
Thomas found all this to be very freeing. Writing country songs seemed to be much more like writing sonnets while rock music was “like being expected to write free verse all the time. Advance or die! But country music was fun. These guys were part of a tradition. Rock musicians weren’t part of anything, not anymore. I wanted to be included, to be part of something.” He started playing modern country covers with his then-girlfriend in the Portland acoustic duo Redneck Baby.
In September of 2016, however, he got dumped. “We [Redneck Baby] kept playing shows, but Nick Peets was encouraging me to write a whole pop country record, which eventually became Sutherlin, and I started to focus my attention on that project. With my broken heart and heightened pop sensibilities, how could we fail?” (Note for the curious: the songs “Falling Down” and “Jesus and Jack” from the Sutherlin record are are all about that romantic breakup and its aftermath.)
Thomas was working at a Portland pizza restaurant at the time, having recently quit his sales job for an environmental consulting company, and the lyrics for the album were mostly written while he was driving around delivering pizzas or working at the restaurant. “I was extremely high on weed coconut butter during this period, as I had obtained an enormous quantity of it in a manner I can relate some other time. So I would drive around and sort of visualize the songs and work on the lyrics that way. Endlessly. Or for four months, anyway.”
On the self-titled debut Sutherlin, featuring ten original modern country anthems, Thomas collaborated with pedal steel player Paul Brainard (of The Sadies, Richmond Fontaine, Alejandro Escovedo) in addition to the same quartet he had used on Quadrants. This time, guitarist Chet Lyster took over production duties as well, and he’s the one largely responsible for the album’s radio-ready pop sheen.
A lot of these songs, Thomas claims, are playing with the lyrical conceits of “bro-country music” specifically and country music generally, both as homage and parody. “I guess they’re kind of like little Quentin Tarantino films, or Don Quixote. I mean, I really love modern country music, but that doesn’t mean it’s not kind of ridiculous.” He pauses. “Especially in Portland.”
“Saturday AM”: “Not biographical, about trying to woo someone who has a different schedule than you”
“The Girl That Got Away”: “Not biographical — just because you see someone with a really attractive lover, don’t assume that they wouldn’t really prefer someone else.”
“Sick Day”: “Not biographical either – sometimes your partner just looks too good to go to work, really.”
“Broken Hearts Are For Mending”: “I wrote this for a woman I met online. She was having a hard time. We never met in person but this is the least cynical song I have ever written.”
Thomas plans to play these songs by himself at first, with only his voice and guitar. “The long term goal is to be touring with a band, and ideally harmonizing with female vocals again. I love that sound! Eventually maybe I won’t have to play guitar, even. I’m going to play a thousand shows as Sutherlin, whatever form it takes, and then we’ll re-evaluate to see if what we are doing is working or not.”
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