Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Trout Fishing In America - Lookin’ At Lucky

This summer was unusual.  The past fifteen or twenty Aprils through Octobers I have spent almost all of my leisure time pursuing trout.  I became addicted to fly fishing in the mid-1980’s.  Even prior to then, I would gather my spinning rod and gear and head to a river, stream, lake or pond to stalk Oncorhynchus mykiss, Salmo trutta, Salvelinus fontinalis and Oncorhynchus aguabonita - rainbow, brown, brook and golden trout.  I have pursued the fish from the Arizona desert through the Sierra Nevada, Rocky and Cascade Mountains onto the plains of Saskatchewan. 

This year, until last weekend, I had not gone fishing - not once. I did not even buy a California fishing license.  I had purchased a yearly California fishing license since I was 16 years old.  It was a hard year. I stuck close to home.  One of my best fishing buddies received a diagnosis of cancer and was now unable to camp or fish.  As the summer wore on he got worse. One of my daughters was having difficulty finding a job after college. The other one was subsidized by us at college out of state. I did not often get to see her. I lost interest in camping and fishing.

So, for the first time this year last weekend I went trout fishing. My wife and I arranged a camping trip with friends and I volunteered to teach them to fly fish.  We bought two-day fishing licenses and headed off for Mount Lassen. I waded into the creek, caught a few fish, sat around the fire and remembered why I had done this for the past 30 years.  I came home tired, dirty but refreshed.

On Monday I went outside to get the mail and there it was inside a small padded manila envelope - Lookin’ At Lucky by Trout Fishing In America. Coincidence?

Trout Fishing In America has been around since I tied my first fly to tippet. This release, on their own label called Trout Records, is their first album for grown-ups in eleven years.  The band is Keith Grimwood on bass and vocals and Ezra Idlet singing along and playing almost every folk instrument known to man - the guitar, ukelele, banjo and bouzouki, as well as percussion. From 1999 until this release Trout Fishing In America was for kids.  They received the children’s music industry’s highest awards - National Parent Publication and Parent’s Choice Awards. They have also garnered four Grammy nominations for “Best Musical Album for Children.” 

Long before Trout Fishing In America there was St. Elmo’s Fire, the adult folk rock band where Grimwood and Idlet met.  Soon they played side gigs together and, in the late 1970’s as St. Elmo’s Fire dissolved,  they played a side gig at a grade school that led to their dedication to kids.

Boy, have those kids been lucky.  Yet, I bet if you ask Trout Fishing In America they would tell you that you are “Lookin’ At Lucky.”  I have not heard original folk music that is as tight, well-written and beautifully performed since neoprene waders were popular.

The first song on the album is “Lookin’ At Lucky,” a country bluegrass march, with a great fiddle part, that tells the story of how a man feels when they’re with someone they love.  I fell for it hook, line and sinker.  It is followed by a country two-step square dance called “She’s The Only Smile,” a song about casting one’s eyes on the most interesting girl at the dance. The tune flows quickly as it dives below the surface.

A fantastic country blues called “Bettin’ That It Won’t” recounts those instances when one hopes for a certain good result but is almost positive it won’t end well - like casting after clumsily tripping over your felt-sole shoes in a quiet pool.  You might hook a fish, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The ballad “Home” is a well-performed melancholy country song about wandering and yearning for home.  I could hear echos of the early Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Little River Band. The song is designed to make you sad - like when you hook a big fish but end up losing it before you even had a chance to see it.   One of the cutest songs on the album is a talking blues, called “Safer Haven,” where the singer goes from location to location and keeps being hit by natural disasters. The song owes a lot to Arlo Guthrie, John Denver and Harry Chapin.  It made me reflect back on those times on the river when a thunderstorm would come in and I’d be standing hip deep in water waving the equivalent of a carbon fibre lightning rod. The track “Drivin’ Rain” is a little country blues funk number. Idlet plays the banjo like it was a rhythm guitar. The lyrics and rhythm brought to mind the swish-swish of the wipers on an old Montana fishing guide’s truck during a mountain storm on the way back from a river fishing float trip.

An odd tune, “Who Knows What He Might Do,” is a driving rant about growing old and acting your age.  I could empathize.  Years ago I could climb over boulders, log jams, rapids and waterfalls in search of prey.  Now, find me a deep pool with easy access.  I still have that same desire to aggressively wade up stream, but at my age I learned that  I just don’t have the same ability. The song “Not Every Dream” is a slow ballad that reminds me of an old Celtic folk song and carries onabout still feeling the same way you did when you were younger.  Counterpoint is provided by violin and acoustic guitar.  It brought to mind all those nights with fishing buddies around the campfire passing the bottle of Maker’s Mark and reminiscing.

A wonderful blues-based number, “The Car’s Running,” recounts “senior moments” such as losing your glasses on your forehead, misplacing the keys, etc.  It made me recall when I hiked two miles upstream to a favorite pool and discovered I’d left my fly boxes back in the car.  “How Many Times A Fool,” a banjo folk tune, explores all the stupid things we do that hurt the ones we love. Sparsely produced and performed, it is as emotive as an early Bob Dylan song, but done with a much better singing voice.  It brought to mind a time one of my fishing buddies on a fishing trip stopped for a drink at a bar in Sierra City on the way back from the river to camp.  There, on a bar stool in the corner, was his first ex-wife.  We didn’t see him back in camp the entire weekend.  In fact, he made his own way back to the Bay Area days later as we all avoided phone calls from his wife.

The last two songs on the album are “I Pretend To Understand” and “My Baby Loves Sudoku.”  The former is a slow country blues about being unable to remember or understand, but, acting like you do.  The latter is a tongue-in-cheek novelty bluegrass epistle on how Sudoku ruins marriages.  It is the closest song on the album to a kid’s song.  Both are a bit silly - like when a fishing partner’s wading shoes soles fell apart in the river and I watched pieces of leather and felt float by while he stood in the river in neoprene stocking feet.  He then knew there was a two mile walk in bare feet out of the canyon ahead of him.  He just went back to fishing for trout until it turned dark.

All in all “Lookin’ At Lucky” is a clever, light, well-performed and well-written first attempt to venture into the world of adult music.  The cuteness and cleverness of Trout Fishing In America’s children’s songs remain.  The musicianship makes each song fun.  The album is like wet-wading - pulling on the old felt-soled boots and leaving the waders behind.  You’re not going in deep or traveling far, but, it sure is damn refreshing. especially if you have a great cast.

- Old School

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