The influence of classic country on Canadian musician Daniel Romano is apparent before listening to a single note. When you pick up a copy of his latest album, Come Cry With Me, it looks like a vintage record store find with bold western lettering and the track listing on the front cover. Then there’s the image of the performer himself – the cowboy hat and the massive belt buckle, but most notably the Nudie suit, floral-embroidered and rhinestone-bedazzled, the type seen on the Grand Ole Opry stage in the ’60s and ’70s and then rarely ever again.
And then you listen to Come Cry With Me, and you hear the kind of pedal steel guitar work, twanging vocals, aching ballads, and bleak story songs that country music left behind decades ago.
It’s a retro reincarnation of a bygone country era that was on a first-name basis with artists like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. And Romano’s rendition is spot-on. But with a prominent hipster youth culture that hate-watches TV, dons thrift-store sweaters for sport, and likes things (but only ironically), Romano’s portrayal begs the question of authenticity. Is he for real?
“I’m very nostalgic, and I very much appreciate tradition; that’s the tradition that most captivated me,” Romano said. “There’s nothing ironic about what I’m doing, it’s just me. People can take what they will from it, but it means everything to me.”
Romano got his early introduction to the Golden Age of country music on lunch breaks from grade school with his grandfather. He marveled at his grandfather and his friends – “pretty hard folk,” he said – who would listen to these sad and beautifully sung country ballads, hinting at tenderness beyond their gruff exterior.
“The men I tend to look up to are like that,” Romano said. “They are a little rough around the edges, but there is a softness and a sweetness and a sensitivity to them that comes out very modestly, and always at the right time.”
But it’s only recently that the 27-year-old performer embraced this brand of country music. He was part of the band Attack in Black in his teens and early 20s, a group that started out making hardcore punk before making a dramatic shift in a roots-music direction. The group called it quits in the summer of 2010; during their run, Romano had founded You’ve Changed Records and made an album with a folk side project. That summer, he had also just released his first solo album, Workin’ For The Music Man, with the unmistakable influence of his grandfather’s music.
“I just made more sense of it later on, when I started becoming a man,” Romano said. “It just came back and rang truer than ever to me.”
Sleep Beneath The Willow came out the following spring, with reviews invoking comparison to country greats like Glen Campbell and Lee Hazlewood and remarking with fascination on the new direction the Attack in Black rocker was taking.
It’s been a few months since the release of Come Cry With Me, and now Romano is on a tour supporting Shooter Jennings (son of outlaw country star Waylon Jennings and a country singer-songwriter in his own right) with a show next Thursday at The State Theatre.
Romano is three albums into his solo career, and he’s still waiting to see where his style will fit in the greater world of country music. Fifty years ago, Romano wouldn’t seem out of place between George Jones and Johnny Cash on an AM radio rotation, but the genre has moved past those early trailblazers into an era where country stars have more pop and rock sensibilities.
Today his music is likely to be considered Americana for lack of a better term, but a look to the past shows exactly what he’s doing.
“It’s just country to me,” Romano said.
• For more information about Daniel Romano, visit danielromanomusic.com.