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Todd Grebe & Cold Country

Todd Grebe hed TG & CC promo #1

Words by Teeka Ballas, F Magazine
Published by Anchorage Press – 6/4/15

Your dog got run over, the wife ran off with your best friend, and the whiskey bottle is now the only company you keep – the common cliché’s most people resort to when talking about country music. Lyrics like I’d love you even if you killed someone, and I’m proud to be American, even though I don’t know my neighbors and my head’s stuck in the sand show that Alaska-based Todd Grebe and Cold Country aren’t just playing with mainstream conventions.

There are at least three-dozen subgenres of country music and the topics broached are vast. Unfortunately, the pop of country – the likes of Hunter Hayes, Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban –has taken over the airwaves, giving the impression it’s the only surviving subgenre. Like most pop music – super slick production, overproduced vocals, extravagant instrumentation – country pop doesn’t have much depth – not even a tear jerking dead dog kind of substance.

Thus, when Grebe and Cold Country’s third album Citizen landed on my desk, I was dubious at best. Though Grebe has been on and off the radar as a bluegrass player, having played with Well Strung and Bearfoot, the new album was branded as “country” and it almost got digitally filed away in the “if you’re desperate to review something” folder. But I was curious.

It takes less than one second off the first track to know Citizen is no corporate glossed pop catastrophe. Nor is it straight up bluegrass. With one kick and a snare, Grebe’s vocals jump right in, along with a fantastic “oompah” bass line, introducing the ear to the integrity and intention of the album right away. There is no question, that in a nutshell, Citizen is pure ol’ fashioned Nashville honky tonk. Sort of. It’s also got a swing underbelly with a touch of jazz, a ceiling of bluegrass, and some serious old school crooner country under its belt.

On the first track Criminal Style there’s instantly a need to kick up heels and swing as Grebe wryly delivers, “I love you so much, if you killed someone you could call me up and I’d help you hide the body.”

Citizen is largely tied together with humor, but because of the intelligence of Grebe’s lyrics and the astounding musicianship on the album, it never comes across as patronizingly cheeky, just clever, fun and engaging.

Todd Cutline

Most of the lyrics on Citizen shave off the woes of old school country: the dog lives, the train comes around the bend, love is vibrant (and kind of violent), and Grebe’s the luckiest damn man in the world. Yet with sincerity, he allows us to be part of the full experience by letting his guard down and delivering heartfelt moments in several ballads that aptly deliver the woes of broken, lost and missed love.

Grebe’s vocals have all the qualities of classic country crooners like Dwight Yoakam and Hank Williams Jr., but with a hint of sand and highway on its edges without the sense of affectation.

The songwriting on Citizen reveals not only Grebe’s lyrical astuteness, but also an acute ability to deliver a catchy tune without compromising the integrity of it. That said, a great meal can’t be called fine dining if it’s not put on a plate; the musicians representing Cold Country on this album are more than just garnish to Grebe’s music fancy – they are in many ways the main course. Recorded in Nashville at The Butcher Shoppe with Grammy award-winning engineer David Ferguson (best known for his work with Johnny Cash), Cold Country alumni Nate May (telecaster) and Angela Oudean (vocals, fiddle – also a former Bearfoot member) joined forces with guests Larry Atamanuik (Alison Krauss) on drums, Mike Bub (Del McCoury) on bass, Steven Hinson (George Jones) on pedal steel, Megan McCormick (Jerry Lewis) on additional guitars and session pianist Jimmy Wallace and John Paul on trumpets.

Ferguson pulled a more electric sound out of Grebe’s songs, giving them the direct hit that they now deliver. Grebe’s wife Oudean, however, assures us he’s not forgot where he came from; her soulful toned fiddle and richly sweet harmonies keep the bluegrass roots apparent and relevant.

Citizen is not a departure from Todd Grebe and Cold Country’s sophomore album Until Tomorrow, but it most certainly reveals growth. The music has expanded, and Grebe’s vocals have matured and found their distinct identity. He’s opened up his tone, added grit and soul, and it no longer sounds like he’s just imitating songs that once inspired him. Citizen is the real deal. It’s original, delightful, and sure to make some waves on the national country music scene.

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