As a title, Country Singles has the generic ring of some bargain-priced George Jones best-of album. But it's also the name of a publication you can find at truck-stop newsstands in rural parts of the Midwest. The Grisly Hand's occasional weekend tours tend to bring the group to such locales, and the members have become devoted readers.
"It's mostly personal ads. Truckers and rural people and criminals use it to meet people and find pen pals and things like that," singer Lauren Krum says.
"A lot of the ads are from incarcerated women," says singer and guitarist Jimmy Fitzner.
"It's funny to read but also kind of sad — like, there'll be some woman who's looking for somebody to pick her up at jail with flowers or something," Krum says.
Over time, it seemed like a fitting title for the new Grisly Hand album. "It became this half-joking, half-serious way for us to embrace the country moniker," Krum says. "Describing our band can get tiresome: 'folk,' 'Americana,' whatever. So it's a little bit being like, 'We're a country band.' "
"It's also kind of playing on the idea of us being a cocky band with a bunch of hit songs," Fitzner says. "Like, 'These are a bunch of our hit singles.' "
Nobody will mistake Country Singles for the new Carrie Underwood joint — it tilts toward barrelhouse grit rather than Nashville sheen — but it's pretty damn accessible. The Grisly Hand has occasionally reached outside familiar country tropes and chord progressions ("Western Avenue," from last year's Western Avenue EP, was a home run), and they continue to do so on Country Singles. The hooks are sturdier, the melodies sweeter. This is possibly related to the recent additions of some local-scene vets to the group. Matt Richey (Dead Voices, Tiny Horse, Blessed Broke) joined the band on drums in the fall of 2011. Mike Stover (Mr. Marco's V7, the People's Liberation Big Band, Dead Voices) has been supplying steel guitar since April 2012.
"I had worked with Lauren and Matt on other projects: Dead Voices, the Exile on Main Street tribute from a couple years ago," Stover says of joining. "I've also worked with Lauren on a couple of jazz gigs. I was already a fan of the band's energy and, probably most importantly, the songwriting. I think those two things set the band apart from the current batch of kinda-country-but-not-really bands."
On past albums, Krum and Fitzner handled most of the songwriting, but those duties are more spread out on Country Singles. Guitarist-mandolinist Ben Summers contributes two songs; the title track was written as a group in the studio.
"I think widening the spectrum was definitely one of the goals for the album," Fitzner says.
"More electric guitars, more keys, more full-band type of stuff," Summers says. "At the same time, there's also a song where it's just Lauren on the piano."
That one, "Blind Horse," is a highlight, though it's not a country song at all. It's a medium-mournful ballad that showcases Krum's confident, soulful voice — one of the finest in the city. Timing isn't everything, but it's sure something/You can't be my everything, but you're sure something, she sings, fragile and exposed. The song was recorded on a slightly out-of-tune piano in a garage. "It just kind of happened. It wasn't even on the agenda for the day, so that removed a little of the pressure of it being just me and the piano," Krum says.
The clattering hoedowns and slow-burning folk songs that comprise the rest of Country Singles — in addition to the vintage country attire that the members favor — suggest a certain nostalgia for the past. Mumford and Sons and its spawn are cashing in by reviving the 1870s; to the extent that the Grisly Hand is channeling the past, it's the 1970s: Gram Parsons, the Band, Emmylou Harris.
"I think it's silly to act like you've never heard a hip-hop record when you're writing your songs," Fitzner says. "So I think we try to incorporate sounds we were listening to in the '80s and '90s into our music, too."
"There's a sing-along quality to some of those [Mumford-like] bands that isn't really what we're after," Richey says.
"Right, it's very purposely sing-alongy," Krum says. "Like, here comes the part where you know all the words."
"I think there's a big difference between a good pop hook that sticks in your head versus something where you're begging listeners to sing along with you," Stover says. "Like, I think we have pop hooks in spades. There are a lot of songs on this record that I think you'd want to sing along to in the car. But it's a different kind of thing."
So, no, the Grisly Hand is not riding the bombastic folk wave. But it probably doesn't hurt to have a bit of folk and country in your sound these days when trying to book shows out of town, which the Grisly Hand has been doing, slowly but surely. It has been making some headway in the Midwest, playing cities like Little Rock and Fayetteville, Arkansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Manhattan, Kansas.
"Those shows are interesting because it takes playing two or three times in a town before anybody knows you," Krum says. "And it's a good exercise in humility, going to places where nobody gives one shit about you."
The Grisly Hand recently played a Friday night at Chicago's Hideout, a venerable dive and popular venue for artists on famed alt-country label Bloodshot Records. Al Scorch, a country songwriter in Chicago with whom Richey used to play, hooked that show up. (Trevor McSpadden, another staple of the Chicago country scene — he plays with the Hoyle Brothers — is on the bill at the Grisly Hand's release show at Knuckleheads April 26.) "It was cool to go up there and play kind of a bigger place where we didn't know the audience, as opposed to playing a house show or something," Krum says.
And trucking it up north to Illinois was also, presumably, an opportunity to check out the latest issue of Country Singles. "Like this one," Fitzner says, reading aloud an entry in which a clearly deranged woman seeks a mate who shares her interest in werewolves, fortunetellers and campfires. "I mean, it's pretty good reading if you're stuck in a van for a couple hours."