There’s a big difference between “old country” and “new country,” as alt-country singer-songwriter Lindi Ortega sees it. In the ’60s and ’70s, her heroes were making raw, honest music. The unmistakable voices of rootsy songstresses like Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette brought variety to the field. Gritty storytelling came by way of outlaw country bandits like Johnny Cash.
“You just don’t hear stuff like that,” Ortega said jokingly, recalling Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” “People aren’t really writing these fictitious murder ballads so much.”
The recordings, the ones Ortega first heard her mother play when she was a child, were wonderfully unpolished; background sounds and slight imperfections lent a live quality. Newer country music, Ortega said, is more polished, less distinct, and more “pop-oriented.” It’s a genre she’s only tied to by chronology. She’s a country artist in the modern day, but her kinship is to those now silent voices.
She moved to Nashville last year from her native Toronto, seizing the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of her music idols and take in the history of the country music capital. And she read the biographies and autobiographies of Nashville stars like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. She also hit the road in support of her debut album Little Red Boots, an album that earned both critical praise and a JUNO award nomination in Canada. The experiences became the inspiration for her sophomore effort Cigarettes and Truckstops, released earlier this month.
She latched onto the life story of Williams first, reading of the impact Alabama bluesman Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne had on his music. She dove into the catalogs of blues legends like Lead Belly and Robert Johnson, and the blues began to trickle into her own music.
“I realized as I was writing, some of my chord progressions and some of my melodies were kind of taking on a bit of a blues feel, as well as the strong country themes and influences that I have. I thought it was cool that my music was evolving that way,” Ortega said. She was once likened to “the love child of Johnny Cash and Nancy Sinatra.” If that’s the case, then those boots made for walking had spurs on her latest release.
Life on the road inspired Ortega’s songwriting on Cigarettes and Truckstops, from the earnest nostalgic ache of the title track that kicks off the album, a tale of tour romance, to the precious ballad “Every Mile of the Ride” that closes the album out. She also finds dark humor in the heartache. The lyrics “you said you’d love me ’til the cows come home; well I’m hoping that they all go blind” open the upbeat, warbling “The Day You Die,” a love-on-the-rocks ditty that seems to wink at the knowledge of her position as an orphan of a bygone era.
She’s back on the road now that Cigarettes and Truckstops is out, this time supporting punk rock band Social Distortion in a tour that will bring her to the 9:30 club next Tuesday and Wednesday.
“A lot of people might raise an eyebrow to that connection,” Ortega admits, but said that the band and its fans have been supportive of what she does.
“I think that [the audience] appreciates people who get on stage and have conviction, and are raw and honest with their music,” Ortega said.
The Man in Black seems to bridge the gap. Social Distortion covers “Ring of Fire” with all its snarling potential, and Ortega puts her spin on “Folsom Prison Blues.”
“This audience is out there to have a great time. They want to rock, so we rock out for them,” Ortega said. “I think we put on a great show. I give my all on that stage every night. I sing my ass off.”
• For more information about Lindi Ortega, visit lindiortega.ca.