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Yes, Virginia, there is a Big Ditch Road. The real Big Ditch Road (Cty. Rd. 57) is a curvy stretch of pavement running alongside (surprise, surprise) a huge ditch that divides the 40-acre farm where Minnesotan singer/guitarist Darin Wald spent his childhood. Wald remembers coming home from school, getting ready to help his father in the fields. He'd call him up on the CB: "Dad, where are you?" His father always gave his distance from his favorite landmark: "I'm northeast of the Big Ditch Road." As a child, Wald mapped the whole world in relation to the Big Ditch Road--and in some ways, he still does.
The main Big Ditch Road in Wald's life right now is one helluva local alt-country band. Equal parts dance rhythms and moody, farm-boy strumming, the group's come-as-you-are musicality evokes an impromptu front-porch jam session. Wald's sparse but romantic poetry makes sure his songs will outlive this year's home brew. Throw in the bittersweet duet of wailing pedal steel and sighing fiddle, and you've got the most original twang-banging this side of ...well, the Big Ditch Road.
On a recent Wednesday, I peek in on the members of BDR at Wald's Lyn-Lake house, just an onion ring's throw from local bluegrass lovers' haunt Dulono's Pizza. Aside from some Turf Club-reminiscent twinkle lights, a picture of dogs playing pool, and a sign that reads "John Deere Rd.," Wald's basement is sans decor. While the rest of the band prepares for their Sunday-night radio show on KQRS, kicking back in attire that ranges from a turtleneck sweater with bowling shoes to embroidered western shirt with pesticide logo snap-cap, bassist Peter Sands finishes washing his laundry under the stairs.
When Sands's shirts are clean, the band warms up with "Waiting for the Fall." Wald forgets the words. Drummer David Downey kids, "Well, hell. You wrote them."
Guitarist Blake Erdahl tries out his new distortion pedal. As he toys with amplification, Wald nods his approval in true cowboy style. "I like it," he says. "It sounds naughty."
The energetic Erdahl shoots back, "It makes my amp explode."
I don't actually get to see his amp explode. But I do see more than one BDR member erupt into laughter when, later in the rehearsal, Wald forgets the words a second time. Erdahl is left to fill the half-sung couplet "Make it last" with a perfectly timed (and rhymed) "Kiss my ass."
BDR deserves to goof off like this. Eight months in the making, their latest album Ring (Eclectone Records), was finally released two months ago, and its simple tunes are brimming with complicated emotions. "Not to Me" opens with a fiddle's bittersweet descending line and Wald's plaintively melodic vocals: "Front porch, screen door/Make no sound of you comin' round." As the song progresses, we meet a broken-hearted man, sitting on his farm, watching the seasons pass and feelin' a world a hurt because the one woman he'll ever love (at least until track 11) has left him to marry another. Eight songs later, "For a While" echoes the inner dialogue of a loner who is looking to woo the unattainable--and, from the sound of things, quite tattooed--object of his affection. On both tracks, the instrumentation is simple, the vocals are intimate, and the lonely pedal steel is almost enough to coax Medea into giving Jason a second chance.
"City Girls" is the story of a farm boy who stayed home to help his father farm, while the girls his age went away to college only to come home all dressed in black. "These old boots muddy up the dance floor," Wald sighs. But songs like "Country Bar & Grill" don't give a shit what condition your shoes are in--they beg you to dance.
The key to Wald's songwriting might be hidden in the folds of "Sunday Night." "Sunday night, depression hits my walls," he sings, "I feel a little crazy walkin' up and down this hall/I guess I never really feel good at all." Any listener worth her No Depression subscription could sympathize. "I hate Sundays," Wald admits. "They're a drag. It's a day when I spend a lot of time alone." He explains how the grocery stores are full of happy couples on Sunday, and how shopping for one just makes him feel "stupid" and "bitter... like a dork." There's a pause, after which Wald shakes his head. "A lot of these songs were written on Sunday," he says, half smiling.
But, judging by Ring, maybe Sunday night's all right for writing. Musical and lyrical gems stud Big Ditch Road's tracks like rhinestones on a cowboy, and, at times, the lyrics are straight out of James Agee in "Knoxville, Summer of 1915." The band should win their asses a Nobel for that noise. Honestly, Mr. Wald, if depression and heartbreak moves you to write like this, I'll come over there some Sunday and break your heart myself.