Craig Gerdes is a singer whose voice is steadied by the legion of angels he believes watch over him. He tells stories at a Southern pace, with a soft voice and slow drawl. His new album Smokin, Drinkin, and Gamblin is full of outlaw country rug cutters, and ballads about strong heads and weak hearts. Fueled by nostalgia, his songwriting talent turns old habits into dependable crutches, and nurses the phantom pain of missing lovers.
Though he hails from rural Illinois, his sound is four-on-the-floor, old-school, San Marcos, Texas-style honky tonk. His work is reminiscent of greats like Leon Payne, George Strait, Jim Lauderdale and James McMurtry. As great songwriters often do, he spent time as a writer in Nashville, where he had some success, and learned that his songs were too country for the cosmopolitan elite.
"Redneck Sonsabitches" eloquently details the story of his Nashville experience, one that put him in front of great outlaw songwriter Billie Joe Shaver. Shaver laughed with him about the difficult road honest songwriters sometimes face on Music Row, and asked him if he'd ever been to Texas. Another man of faith, Shaver ensured Gerdes they'd meet again, and three years later Gerdes opened a show for him outside La Grange. The song he penned about it is a swaggerin' chicken-pickin' electric two stepper. The band careens through a tempo change where he namechecks Shaver, who told him "Son, I know just how you feel," before he remembers what record companies remarked about his work—"You long haired redneck sonsabitches are not wanted here in Nashville, Tennessee."
Gerdes began playing country music at the age of 10 in the band of his father, who, as a child, would crowd around the radio with his family waiting for the wind to blow in just the right direction so they could pick up the faint signal from the Grand Ole Opry. The songs his father loved—by country icons like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash—provided the foundation for Craig's work. By age 12, he was already a capable songwriter and musician. And by 16, he'd wandered from the narrow path. "In the same summer," he recalls, "I totaled my car, broke my best friend's neck, dropped out of high school, got arrested and got married."
A few years later, after a chance meeting with a Nashville band, Gerdes wound up living on Music Row. For a time, he literally slept on the floor of a studio where greats like George Jones and Jerry Reed had recorded, a place that's now a one bedroom apartment. "I was hoping to soak up some of that mojo," he jokes about harder times. While Gerdes was able to gain traction with a publishing company and even do some co-writing, his traditional songs just didn't fit in. After years of the seven-hour commute back and forth from his family in unincorporated Pattonsburg, Illinois. (pop. 348), every weekend, he decided to go his own way, leaving Nashville behind and returning full-time to rural life. During this point in his life, while Gerdes was on a hiatus from songwriting to concentrate on raising his kids, his 16-year-old cousin was killed in a car wreck. He was compelled to write again by an angel he believes is her.
Many of Gerdes' songs embody the life of the traveler. While listening to the radio on a trip, he heard the story of a man found cut up in a box and was inspired to write the murder ballad "Dead In A Box In Kentucky." There's a Spanish guitar solo during the bridge that dances into a climactic finish that concludes with a Hitchcockian fratricidal twist. Gerdes' voice is at its strongest on "Almost To Alabama," where he's joined by dobro, imagining the end of the road, and distant lovers. The title track, "Smokin' Drinkin' Gamblin'" is another song only a road-weary rambler could write. It's the apex of country music, where the rhythm section leads in a thudding backbeat, and steel guitar has room to wander all over the beat, while Gerdes moans about "ramblin' my young life away."
Gerdes sings a mean cheatin' song as well. His ribald song "Learned From The Best" and his cover of Johnny Paycheck’s "Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets" bookend the album, the latter a fitting choice—on the surface, Paycheck’s lyrics are about an illicit affair, but under the covers it's about class distinction; the sleek countrypolitan image the music industry creates, and the actual people they use to make the music they desire.
While Gerdes' songs about smokin', drinkin' and gamblin' aren't necessarily gospel fare he is for certain "spreading the gospel of country music." His experiences and his angels guard him from writing songs "with no heart or soul." Rarely has classic barroom country been so crossover capable. Give it a listen and you, too, will believe.