When Moncton country group The Divorcees take the Capitol Theatre stage on Saturday night, the show will help bring the band full circle in a roundabout kind of way.
Over the last decade, The Divorcees have amassed a significant following, both regionally and nationally, having never been shy about wearing its traditional country influence on its sleeves.
As the band was building its following in the early 2000s, however, they moonlighted as The Rock Island Line, an outlet they used to pay tribute to the music of Johnny Cash. Their show this Saturday marks a return to their tipping of the hat to the Man In Black as well as his peers, who include fellow “Outlaws” Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.
“My inspiration to start a band playing outlaw was a shared desire to keep the flame and not let it die out,” Divorcees guitarist-vocalist Alex Madsen begins. “At the time we started, it was all but gone and replaced by what we considered plastic stuff. It made us nuts. We all looked at each other and said ‘if we can’t find it anywhere else, we’ll have to make it for ourselves!’”
Although the point could be argued both ways, Madsen has a point: Country music stars that are dominating the charts today – Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt, among them – have more in common with pop music than country. Some artists have even proclaimed the genre is the new rock n roll.
“I can only speak for myself, but it feels like the business became a giant factory in the 80’s and 90’s,” Madsen says, referring to country music. “A real formula began to emerge. In Nashville, they say ‘it’s all about the songs.’ Well, surprisingly, they’re right, but they’re right in the wrong way. Many songs are designed for maximum party attendance, be it a festival or a club, adjusted for fireworks, tweaked for arena rock guitar solos to go with those fireworks, and expertly crafted for call-and-answer chants between the artists and the crowd. The melodies are the same so you’re conditioned to know what’s coming up next. Everything’s scripted and easy to grasp. Nothing too deep, too dark, too dangerous. I believe it’s Nashville’s way of not taking chances. They want to play it safe, which I can understand, even if it doesn’t make it right.”
What Madsen finds troublesome about the career trajectories of Cash, Nelson, Haggard and Jennings is the lack of respect that many perceive the artists have been afforded in the latter parts of their respective careers. While Nelson still actively tours today, country radio shies away from playing any new material from the songwriter. The same could be said for the last studio recordings of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, as well.
Madsen believes country radio intentionally left the Outlaws behind in favour of their bottom line.
“Merle Haggard couldn’t get airplay because he made you feel not just like partying, but could make you feel sad too. He had opinions that not everyone agreed with on either side of coin, and because of that, radio couldn’t do anything with him. They were just not going to take the chance. I feel that mentality is something that applies to all the Outlaws.”
Madsen and his cohorts in The Divorcees – Denis Arsenault, Kevin Macintyre and Shawn Thomas – never gravitated towards playing traditional country music to buck any kind of trend or to “fit in.” They simply identified with the music, message and heart that was so prominently featured in the works of those artists.
“I’ve always been attracted to the poetry of outlaw country. It speaks to me. There are so many fantastic writers like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Billie Joe Shaver behind Waylon, Willie and guys cut from that same cloth. On top of that, however, you also have the artists themselves who have all penned amazing literary works without even picking up a guitar,” Madsen shares.
“Beauty, depth, irreverence, self-effacing humor, wistfulness, loneliness, regret, passion and pain – it’s all there. It’s some of the best writing there is and we’re finding more and more everyday how these classics are standing the test of time.”
As he excitedly looks forward to Saturday evening, Madsen acknowledges this tribute show has been in the works over the course of many years. Not only is the group’s performance inspired by the music itself, he says it is also inspired by those who have routinely supported the group.
“This show comes from a love of this style of music and the experiences we’ve had sharing it with our friends and fans. It’s the product of years of requests from that fella at the back who’s been waiting for someone – anyone – to play [Waylon Jennings] ‘Amanda’ for him. We’re that guy, too. We get how he feels, and believe me when I say we’re just as happy to play it.”
What: The Divorcees Pay Tribute To The Outlaws
When: Saturday Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 811 Main St., Moncton
Tickets are $27 for members, $29 for non-members. Advance tickets are available at the Capitol Theatre Box Office, by phone (506) 856-4379 and online at capitol.nb.ca