“If you believe in fairies, then clap really hard.”
Country is hard to come by down under. Unless you find yourself out in the cane fields up north or some regional backwater, it’s difficult to get an authentic outpouring of emotion in a conventional country manner. Yet the United States seems to have this musical brand in spades. If you’re looking for a slight twist on a trip down memory lane, then look no further than West Virginian-born Sierra Ferrell and her Nashville-based band.
For one night only, Marrickville’s Great Club got a taste of country twang, and the Inner West crowd took to the novelty with zeal, donning Western wear with tongue-in-cheek pride. While there was an element of artifice here, the reality of Ferrell’s voice - which cuts through with an eerie clarity - was undeniable.
First, Jonny Fritz wowed and teased with a blend of alt-country tracks, including his “song about self-doubt. It’s really good,” he said. “I like it. Well, I wrote it.” This oxymoronic introduction signalled a smorgasbord of cheeky tunes which meshed existential dread and hilarious wordplay.
Between songs, he quipped with the audience, entreating them with “Should I tell the story for this one?” The crowd called out “Yes!” and Jonny obliged with a tale of “highly caffeinated, amphetamine-induced love” at a gas station in Middle-of-Nowhere Atlanta, with a rose-tattoo-bellied attendant, which he called Holy Water.
Now out West, playing the role of “Los Angeles’ premier used house salesman”, kitted out in a blemished yellow suit, Jonny Fritz is all sad clown or the eponymous figure of his 2016 LP, Sweet Creep. For what it’s worth, his act is endearing, and his portraits of the American South - like the ones delivered in Stadium Inn - are weird and wonderful.
What Jonny possessed in humorous dishevelment, Sierra Ferrell Band bore in poise and professionalism. A coy entrance belied a set that moved from country ballads, tales of woe told in gypsy jazz style, a homage to an icon, a choral call and response, and even a calypso twist.
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Fiddle player Josie Toney joked: “Why’d you come out and practise so long? You never practise.” Only for Sierra to respond: “I had to. These people really listen here!” There seemed a mutual reverence for such a novel experience which straddled the bounds between kitsch and credibility - eviscerated by the force of her voice and the tightness of the ensemble.
Of course, this music harks back to a bygone era, yet the fact this was sold out by die-hard fans who audibly gasped at times shows there is a place for this particular brand of nostalgic innovation. What better canvas than the sultry, playful, and yet somewhat aloof character of Sierra Ferrell?
While her big songs - In Dreams and Jeremiah - as well as her “song of praise” to the recently passed legend, Loretta Lynn, roused the audience to sing and clap along, really there were no lulls in this one-and-a-half-hour show. This is an unequivocal testament to the staying power of Ferrell’s music and the spell she and her quartet cast over the crowd.
Preempting the encore before the set was even over, the crowd bayed for more, only for Ferrell to say in her characteristically cutsie way: “If you believe in fairies, then clap really hard.” They did - all night long. She closed with an almost anachronistic jest - “The internet has ruined us. I’m like a walking meme” - followed by her Charley Pride’s puckish murder ballad, Snakes Crawl at Night. The house lights were on, yet they still wanted more.