I was attracted to The Youngers by the presence of frontman Todd Bartolo, who plays guitar in one of my favorite bands, the Pennsylvania-based alt-country outfit Frog Holler. Though also based in rural Pennsylvania, The Youngers is quite a different band; they play solid Americana, with a sound that sometimes leans toward classic country and sometimes toward classic rock.
Bartolo writes most of The Youngers’ material and sings most of the lead vocals with the distinctive Pennsylvania flat-voweled sound; in fact he sounds a bit like Frog Holler frontman Darren Schlappich. Bartolo also plays electric guitars, and his lap steel in particular adds a lot of muscle to the band’s sound.
Rounding out the band are Rancy Krater on vocals and bass, Jesse Nocera on guitars and Justin Schaefer on drums. The foursome recorded Heritage, their second album, at the Cash Cabin Studio at Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with John Carter Cash producing. They’re also joined by his wife Laura Cash on fiddle, bluegrass notable Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Ralph Mooney on pedal steel and several other top session players.
But the best sidemen are only window dressing if you don’t start with strong material, and for the most part the Youngers have it. The album starts off on the right foot with “Heartbreaker,” a sparkling Nashville-sounding country rocker about a woman with faithfulness challenges, a sing-along chorus, growling B3 organ, jangley guitars and a hot lap steel break. Unfortunately, two of the next three tracks descend into lyrical and musical cliches: the title track has jingoistic lyrics about working folks and the problems they face, and “Truck Driving Man” is about how “the world don’t understand the truck-drivin’ man.” But even with the hackneyed subject matter, these songs have dark ominous chords, and “Heritage” with its jangly guitars and lots of mandolin sounds like early REM. And in between them is “Highway 9,” another ominous song about a drifter, with an unbalanced rhyme scheme that mirrors the subject matter.
“In the Morning” is a plodding slab of Crazy Horse-influenced country rock about a man defending his land with his guns, complete with a stabbing guitar solo. The Springsteen-influenced “In the Middle of the Night” comes complete with wailing tenor sax. “Big Ol’ Freight Train” is a bluegrass-style number about a woman who left on that train. Classic country and honky-tonk take center stage on the slow waltz “Right All the Wrongs” and “Our Little Secret,” both of which feature Ms. Cash’s sorrowful fiddling. The latter is sung by Krater, whose voice is more gravelly than Bartolo’s; he also sings on another romantic waltz, “The Ride,” about a guy who’s leaving but who’s not sure he wants to.
The Youngers have a lot going for them, especially if they keep clear the distinction between tradition and cliché. Heritage is warm heartland Americana of the highest quality.