It’s a cheerful, sunny afternoon in a quiet residential neighborhood in Antwerp, a Belgian city known for its old, cobbled streets and its flourishing diamond trade. Antwerp isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking about country music. And yet…
Hidden behind the walls of a narrow terraced house in an anonymous row of buildings is the apartment and home studio of pianist Guy van Nueten. The six members of Chitlin’ Fooks have gathered this afternoon around Van Zueten’s grand piano and are rehearsing songs from their upcoming second album. The band — Van Nueten, singer-guitarist Carol van Dyk, singer-guitarist Pascal Deweze, bassist Pieter van Buyten, drummer Stoffel Verlackt, and multi-instrumentalist Helder Deploige — are heading to Holland in a few days to record the album, and things are moving at a brisk pace.
“We’re rehearsing for three days, and then we’ll wrap things up in the studio just as quickly,” Deweze explains. “This is our first afternoon of practicing, the first time the rest of the band — aside from Carol — have heard the songs.”
Creating a unique blend of old-timey, classic country & western, and modern-day Americana styles, the band’s self-titled debut created quite a storm last year in the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg). Often eerily recalling the magic vocal harmonies of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, the two principal songwriters — Deweze and Van Dyk — are hardly strangers to the music business.
Van Dyk is best known as the charismatic singer of Dutch indie-rock band Bettie Serveert, while Deweze’s former projects include the accomplished Belgian pop group Metal Molly and the indie-rock band Sukilove. The latter group, which also features the rest of the Chitlin’ Fooks lineup except for Van Dyk, released an album titled Talking In The Dark earlier this year on Illinois indie label Hidden Agenda, which handled the U.S. distribution of Chitlin’ Fooks’ self-titled debut disc last year.
But Chitlin’ Fooks is something completely different altogether. “Ever since I was 16 years old, I’ve always wanted to be in a country band,” says Van Dyk. “I didn’t know anyone else who shared that same feeling. So you could say it’s like a dream come true for me.”
Mixing her love of songbirds such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton with Deweze’s deep appreciation of elder country pioneers and bluesmen such as Lead Belly, Skip James, Jimmie Rodgers, and Mississippi John Hurt, the band’s sound is anything but typically European. Firmly rooted in the often misty-eyed golden days of American music, Chitlin’ Fooks have set the clocks to a quarter past country.
Most of the material on their debut was written before the band came to life, as Van Dyk and Deweze seemed to have the same dilemma. “None of these songs were suitable for either Metal Molly or Bettie Serveert,” Deweze explains. “Carol came over to my place in Antwerp for a couple of days, and we hit it off and started to write songs together. We got the band involved, and we’d write in the evenings and rehearse with everyone the next day.”
With seven original compositions supplemented by four covers (including the Parsons-penned “Juanita” and the Kitty Wells/Webb Pierce crooner “One Week Later”), the album turned out to be quite a success in Belgium and the Netherlands, and made modest inroads in the United States as well. But it was never envisioned as anything more than a labor of love, Van Dyk asserts.
“We didn’t start this thing to make money,” she says. “We love this music, and I think it’s fantastic that other people seem to share our passion. After all, old-fashioned country and western isn’t exactly riding high in the charts over here in Europe!”
Their second record, Did It Again, is due for release in October on both sides of the Atlantic and finds the young band rapidly diversifying its sound. The album will not contain a single cover song, and the material is all over the map stylistically — the American map, that is.
Deweze’s “Go Easy On Me” is a slow blues with stunning vocal harmonies, while the jaunty, Cole Porter-like “Don’t Wait Up For Me” starts off as an organ-based ragtime before switching over to a New Orleans beat, recalling Nina Simone. “If One Day” is pure early-period Tom Waits in its staggering, light-headed drunkenness, Van Nueten’s organ lending a spare, church-like ambiance to this modern gospel song.
Before the band call it quits for the day, Deweze leans back and makes clear: “We want to prove that we’re not just musical copycats, and there’s much more to us than a Belgian or a Dutch version of existing bands or singers. The more we play together, the more we go out on the road, the more we’re a band. After all, this is the music we love.”