If Bob Dylan had headed south to Appalachia when he fled Minnesota, rather than east to Greenwich Village, he might have ended up sounding something like Mike Coykendall, singer and songwriter of the Old Joe Clarks.
On the band’s debut CD, Town Of Ten — self-released locally a year ago but recently picked up nationally by Chicago label Checkered Past — Coykendall’s nasal, warbly voice fairly aches with the sparseness of small town life. The record’s 12 atmospheric, old-timey country songs are deceptively simple, filled with old barns and farmers, abandoned train tracks and lovers, falling rain and bullets, and disappointed women waking up in welfare hotels.
Coykendall, 34, grew up in Norwich, Kansas, a town of 500 people about 35 miles southwest of Wichita; he fled to San Francisco in 1991. “When we started, I said, what would happen if I played country music with some weird instruments and a psychedelic overall attitude, and a lot of different textures,” explains Coykendall, who played “psychedelic punk rock” with the Wichita band Klyde Konner before forming the Old Joe Clarks in 1992.
Since then, the band has moved away from psychedelia toward a more traditional sound, while Coykendall’s songwriting has become more somber and less “wiggy,” as he puts it. “Even if [the song is] vague, I try to make it an overall feeling, and a story. I try to be a little bit more disciplined, for better or for worse.”
The results are Ralph Stanley gritty with a citified edge. In “Too Late”, Coykendall tells a lost friend you’ll have to go it alone: “You’ve cut to your own chase/And then you missed the race/When they fired the gun/You never heard a sound.”
Amid the despair, it’s clear that Coykendall envisions small-town America as a microcosm for the pleasures and travails of modern life. In the album’s title song, he sings, “Everything to me/Is found in a town of ten/Old church house and a school/We could go exploring.” Neighbors carry over covered dishes or flowers from the garden; farmers puzzle over losing their land to faceless corporations.
For the CD art, Coykendall photographed an abandoned shack a few miles outside Norwich, and the railroad tracks he played on as a boy. The trains used to come through daily, he says, but hardly chug past every other month now. “I always walk those tracks when I’m back. There’s so many weeds grown up in there.”
Onstage, the Old Joe Clarks are like a country-soaked classical quartet. They stay seated, somewhat shyly and intensely focused on their craft. Entirely lacking in attitude, they create beautiful, haunting and raw country music. They are having fun; they just don’t want to mess it up. “It’s not really party music anyway. Although I don’t want it to be too much of a bummer,” Coykendall says. “None of us are very good at being showpeople. Trying to get the sound across is the main thing.”
Coykendall sings and writes all the Old Joe Clarks’ songs, and plays guitar, harmonica, banjo, autoharp and percussion. His wife, Jill McClelland-Coykendall, plays bass, clarinet and melodica; Kurt Stevenson contributes backup vocals, lap steel, dobro, fiddle, electric guitar and bass.
The band’s new percussionist, Mark Orton, was “discovered” early in 1997 during a gig at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffee House. (Coykendall used to keep time by kicking an old suitcase.) Orton, the venue’s soundman, started tapping along while the band was setting up, and was quickly hired.
Back in Kansas, McClelland-Coykendall performed with an avant garde classical group, Wichita New Music Ensemble. Her atmospheric clarinet and melodica create a stylish, moody backdrop for Coykendall’s bare-bones lyrics. “The perfection of classical music is so ingrained into her,” Coykendall says. “Sometimes I can’t get her to accept being sloppy.”
A drummer himself from age 10, Coykendall started playing guitar in his teens and fronted Klyde Konner after dropping out of junior college in Dodge City. The band started out as “psychedelic folk rock” and grew into “psychedelic punk rock with a little bit of folk. It got louder and louder,” he says. Eventually, Coykendall switched over to the Old Joe Clarks’ measured, melodic music. “This is where my heart is,” he says.
Coykendall grew up listening to Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley, the Beatles, Townes Van Zandt and “anything in between,” he says. When asked what he’s been listening to lately, his first response is “NPR.” He admits that he doesn’t listen to much contemporary stuff, but between regular doses of National Public Radio, Coykendall says he’s had the new Dylan album on his CD player more than anything else.
As for the recurring Dylan comparisons, Coykendall will allow, “My voice lends itself to that. I’ve got that nasal congestion thing going for me.”