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The No Surf Review


The Lowdown:

Roger Hoover

Based In:
Kent, Ohio




Release Date:
September 17, 2016

Last Chance Records

Ryan Foltz, Roger Hoover (co-producer)

Previous Releases:
Panic Blues (2005), Jukebox Manifesto (2006), Eastern Standard Time (2006, with the Magpies), Strangers (2010, with the Magpies), Lay My Rituals Down (2012)

Americana, folk, modern folk, urban folk, country, blues, blues rock


Roger Hoover, Pastures cover art

Rating: 9 out of 10



February 21, 2017



February Featured Review

Roger Hoover: Pastures

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad

Veteran Americana songwriter Roger Hoover’s Pastures a rich, cerebral take on modern folk and the modern world.


Roger Hoover performs at the Pastures album release, G.A.R. Hall, Peninsula, Ohio, 10/15/16. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

When venerable Kent, Ohio based songwriter Roger Hoover announced last year that his forthcoming album would be entitled Pastures, I rightly expected a Woody Guthrie tribute, or at least heavy references. After all, Roger is known around the North Coast as something of a music historian, steeped in the folk tradition and prone to holding events centered around historical greats like Woody and Leadbelly. The album’s cover art—which evokes not only Woody’s own drawings but the WPA block style so popular in his era—was further evidence supporting my conclusion.

A Woody Guthrie tribute Pastures is not. Instead, it is strikingly original.

“I had intended to write a completely stripped down, traditional folk record using Dave Van Ronk's interpretation of Woody Guthrie's Pastures of Plenty as the jumping off point,” says Hoover. “What I realized early on was that I wasn't in the right mindset to write that album or comment on some of the things Woody did—the external world and the suffering—so I started writing songs from within my familiar world. So, some of those early references were very intentional but quickly fell apart.”

What eventually resulted is a collection that vacillates between light folk & country and heavier rock & blues themes, as it does between love songs, introspective metaphysical pieces, and songs set in the soil of the earth and sweat of the brow. Hoover calls on a plethora of philosophical underpinnings as well as musical touchstones throughout the album without becoming beholden to them.

Hoover onstage with his wife Ysabel at the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula, Ohio, 10/15/16. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

“I tend not to listen to music when I'm writing because something always leaks through,” Hoover explains. “When I finished this record, I had the best feeling I've ever had about a record I had written—I felt this one was entirely my own. I didn't hear the influences; I didn't try to write like anybody. They're there, for sure, but only because I've listened to Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan so much.

“I can't say where my view of the modern world stems from,” he continues, “though I've certainly read plenty of Thoreau and Wendell Berry, who is kind of an agrarian anarchist. I do, however, hold modernity accountable for a lot of problems. We've made considerable progress but in the name of what? Destruction of our environment? That's just one fact.

“I guess that begins mostly with the Industrial Revolution. Before that, there used to be a lot of mystery in the world. There was a lot of knowledge and wisdom too. Now all we have is information. We've forgotten how to gather knowledge and share wisdom. I think technology has destroyed that. I see the world as lacking in spirituality—not necessarily religion. I still see a lot of genuine goodness and brotherhood, sisterhood. It is more important now than ever that we share our experiences, we gather together in some communal space and teach and learn. I see a lot of folks ditching their mundane jobs and forging their own paths.”

That harkening back to a simpler world—the utopian longing bubbling up through the zeitgeist—pervades the album.

Pastures recaptures Hoover’s days with the Magpies in the fullness and complexity of its sound, but utilizes a new band that includes some of the area’s great musical talents. This includes brothers Ray “Cleveland’s Clapton” Flanagan on lead guitar and Russell “The Authority” Flanagan on piano and Hammond B3.

“This current band is capable of doing anything,” Hoover gushes, “but what is most impressive is their ability to listen and serve the song. There's no ego. None. We can play the same song twelve different ways, depending on my mood. We change keys of songs from night to night and there's never missing a note or a beat. We thrive off hearing each other and going where the song takes us. It’s a very emotive band. As performers, we tend more towards the snake charmer side of things.”

As for incorporating the far younger brothers Flanagan in the mix, the musical veteran says, “They are two of the most talented musicians I've ever had the pleasure of working with. They are extremely knowledgeable, ready to learn about new music, write with considerable intention, and can flat out play.

Ray Flanagan performs alongside Hoover at the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula, Ohio. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

“I've never considered them inexperienced musicians. We all have a lot of living and learning to do. Just because they're young shouldn't imply that they can't teach us old dogs. The greatest gift they've given me—musically and personally—is by allowing themselves to let me teach what I know, and letting me watch as they carry it down the road. They're the new generation. The next links in the chain. We're all connected that way.”

The elder Flanagan agrees with the sentiment.

“Working with Roger has been crucial for kicking my personal development into overdrive,” says Ray. “I don't think age comes into play much. There was a certain element of trust where Roger allowed me to be pretty free with what I played. My approach is such that I only contribute what I can hear to improve the song. There are times when I know it's better not to play at all. I learned a lot about how to make a recording session more natural and relaxed between Roger and Ryan. In general I love being a sideman to songwriters. It benefits my own art to be in a position of trying to be a piece in someone else's puzzle.”

As for his younger brother, “Working with Russ is so easy. He's such a natural, he never plays anything stupid, and always gets it right within five takes.”

In the maelstrom that is the formation of a new work, all of these factors combined to create a collection that is remarkably complex musically and contemplative lyrically. The continual remixing of influences, styles, and attitudes makes for a constantly changing musicscape that touches down in many places while remaining distinctly Hoover’s own.

The title track “Pastures,” for instance, is the Henry David Thoreau, Woody Guthrie, Lou Reed, Elizabeth Cotton, Sons of the Pioneers mashup we’ve all been waiting for. While its horse-hoof percussion proceeds at a trot, Hoover’s reverb-heavy voice and the wandering, haunting electric guitar move along at a much more reserved pace. It is perhaps Hoover’s clearest call for a return to simpler values:

I want to live in a cabin far from town.
I want to live in a cabin far from town.
Where the pasture is a plenty and stars go falling down.

I want to know hard work and feel my hands a trembling.
I want to know hard work and feel my hands a trembling
At the end of a long day with you a’holding them.

The exquisitely crafted “Always on My Mind” is the collection’s poetic masterpiece. Above spritely-picked acoustic guitar and haunting slide, it acts as the lyrical movie trailer for an epic love and disaster story. The first section encompasses the meet-cute between a steamboat crewman and a prostitute. It also gets high points for managing to fit the word “Escanaba” into the meter:

I was on the Morning Star and I just pulled into town.
Whenever I meet with a deck of cards I lay my money down.
I hadn’t been in Escanaba many more weeks than three
When I fell in love with a pretty little girl who fell in love with me.

Like winter thinks of spring, evening turns to dawn.
I hear the brass bells ring and I must be moving on.
You’re always on my mind.

The song’s steam(boat)punk imagery throws back to the days of classic folk love ballads, among which this gorgeously polished track would stand the test of time. The love story itself is an embellishment, though the wreck of the Morning Star that the song foreshadows is based in fact. The ship, captained by one E.R. Viger (who is therefore Hoover’s fictionalized protagonist), sunk sometime after midnight on June 21, 1868 in about seventy feet of Lake Erie water when it crashed into the bark Courtland. It’s unknown exactly how many passengers were aboard the Morning Star, but it’s estimated that between thirty and forty-five souls were lost, along with five crewmen on the Courtland. Captain Viger and fourteen of his passengers were rescued after clinging to a piece of wreckage for several hours, so perhaps he made it back to Escanaba, after all.

Some blamed the other captain for having insufficient lighting on deck, to which he replied, "I had just as good of lights as ever were carried,” a line which Hoover borrowed to describe the female half of his couple, along with the zinger from “Roving Gambler” used to characterize the card-enthusiast captain.

On the other side of the album’s musical and emotional spectrum, the uptempo blues gospel rocker “Dust” is distinguished by Hoover’s deep, diabolical, reverberating vocals and the excellent work of the Flanagan brothers on both guitar and organ. While this track could easily find a home on a latter-day Ray Wylie Hubbard release, it stands out in this folky collection while still fitting into the mix. Its surrealistic lyrics paint an ominous picture:

Every day I wake I turn into a stone.
Every day I wake I turn into a stone.
I wake into a wilderness that is not my own.

The devil rides to town on a Model A Ford.
The devil rides to town on a Model A Ford.
On a cloud of dust and waits at your door.

Oh, Jesus, I’m on fire.
Oh, Jesus, I’m on fire.
I have a heart full of loneliness and a mind full of desire.

A Guthrie-themed album this may not be, but Hoover did seek to capture some of the Dustbowl’s apocalyptic vision in this song.

“I carry around a lot of notebooks,” he explains. “One for single lines, one for drafts, one for finished songs. The line, ‘Every day I wake, I turn into stone. I wake up in a wilderness that is not my own,’ has been around for a number of years, floating through notebooks. I remember writing that line. I woke up, had my coffee and cigarette out on the back porch, watched the cars go by and had this feeling that I didn't recognize the world anymore.

“I've talked before about losing the mystery in the world. There was a sense that the Dust Bowl wasn't created by man as we now know it to be, but that the American people had committed a crime against God and he was punishing us for it. My maternal grandfather grew up in the Great Depression and I recalled him telling me about the dust storms and how they blew all the way to New York. I tried to write a song that reflected both my experience in the world today, coupled with that experience of my grandfather's.”

In contrast to the driving sound of “Dust,” the tenderly plucked strings of “Just a Little”—accented perfectly by Ray Flanagan’s gorgeous, truly slow-handed slide guitar—strike a playful note. This time, Hoover blends existentialism with the spirit of Arthur Miller and Chuck Palahniuk and the imagery of Huck Finn:

Man wakes up in the morning, gets into his car.
You don’t know how lonesome he feels. He feels like a fading star.
He goes to work every day from dusk ‘til dawn.
Wants to feel he’s a part of something much bigger and that something’s gone.

Man wants to get paid, just a little.
Man needs a maid, just a little.
Man wants to change things back just a little from the way they are.
Man wants to feel alive, just a little.
He wants to take a drive, just a little.
Sometimes a man is just a little boy at heart.

The same reserved tone can be seen in the album’s opener, the slow, mellow “Give What You Give Back,” a piece characterized by long, loping bass notes, gently plucked acoustic guitar, gingerly struck piano keys, and perfectly placed electric guitar accents. The song focuses on the importance of simple living and workaday pleasures, its everyman story filled with a mix of Thoreauvian philosophy and Guthriesque imagery:

He walks head down the highway for to make his way back east.
The oil wells have dried up and work is moving overseas.
You give what you get back, or so we’re told.
He couldn’t hitch a ride much, the nights was long and the earth was cold.
You know the earth was cold.
Sometimes what you get back, can’t be defined.
Sometimes what you get back will be revealed in time.
It’ll be revealed in time.

The blues guitar comes back with a vengeance to close out the collection in “Life We Create,” along with Russell’s 100% pure off-the-hook honky tonk piano and Hoover’s gruff, over-amped voice. Finally, after an album that vacillated between philosophical songs and love songs, we have a truly philosophical love song. Here, John Lennon’s working class hero meets Phil Ochs’ progressive vision (and John Fogerty’s porch sitting practices). It’s an intricately woven lyrical tapestry that captures both the essence of its characters and their emotions. As with any great story, its specifics help make it universal:

Hoover and band onstage at the Pastures album release, G.A.R. Hall, Peninsula, Ohio, 10/15/16. (l-r) Ray Flanagan, Eric Baltrinic, Roger Hoover, Kevin Martinez, Russell Flanagan. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

You know that place by the river? By the standing stone?
By the old elm tree that we call our own?
Whenever I go there, and I see the full moon wane,
I stop to think about us and the life we create.

How long do we go on after we’re dead and gone?
Will anybody remember us? Will they still be singing songs?
Can we make all our lives all of a piece or is it getting late?
How will our children live in the life we create?

Hoover may not have been looking to make a Woody Guthrie tribute, but perhaps he did anyway, writing songs about his own life and the world around him and collecting an eclectic group of friends to perform them. Like Woody, he did his own thing, and the commitment to artistry shows.

Pastures is a stunning, complex album filled with carefully crafted lyrics from one of Americana’s standout songwriters and finely tuned music from some of the North Coast’s standout musicians. It is filled with both the energy of youth and the wisdom of experience. It demonstrates both reverence for the old and appreciation of innovation. It mixes slow, introspective pieces with rollicking, upbeat numbers while always remaining gripping. It is in short, plentiful, and in music, as in life, that ain’t a bad thing to be.



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