You might think, if you’re unfamiliar with Dan Bern and hearing the song “Merle, Hank & Johnny” on his new album Hoody, that he’s just another Americana nostalgist singing about Country icons who used to get played on the radio before the dreaded brats with hats took over Modern Country.
That would be wrong. Bern, who is 50, is a consummately inventive and trenchant singer/songwriter/guitarist/harmonica player who has been recording since 1997. He excels, but is not limited to, the talking Blues tradition of Dylan and other early-1960s Folk performers. And he sometimes uses the Country Rock twang of Americana as a setting for his uniquely perceptive, comic yet courageous lyrical ideas.
For instance, Hoody’s “Welcome” is a take on modern-day America that simultaneously makes you laugh and chills you with its sense of foreboding: “Welcome, welcome/Come and have some fun/We got every Chinese toy under the sun/And every Ponzi scheme that ever has been run/And old men with hard-ons/And madmen with guns.”
But he can also be tenderly romantic, as the new album’s “Turn On a Dime” proves; or exuberantly enthralling in his use of vocabulary and Rock & Roll arrangements, as the enduring “Estelle” from his first album proved.
Bern, who was born in Iowa, has a devoted following that is similar to England’s Billy Bragg. It’s sizable but not so huge as to ruin the sense of intimacy that fans of his live shows like.