It is tempting, amid the ongoing folk-bluegrass-acoustic revival, to submit oneself to the notion that Sonoma County is a mecca for the trend. KRSH-FM has carried the torch of the roundwound string for years, and KRCB-FM’s new format favors a mix of Americana favorites and underground singer-songwriters.
These days, an acoustic band can nearly always find a paying job—be it at a winery, a cafe, an outdoor farmers market or a casual club. Banjos, bandanas, vests and ukuleles are still hot in Sonoma County, so much that members of punk bands have swapped their Stratocasters for dobros.
But what’s important to remember is that Sonoma County has always been a center of this music. From the glee club–style groups like the Saxon Folk Quartet in the ’60s, to the myriad Joni Mitchell and John Prine protégés throughout the 1970s, the area has a rich history of quiet, reflective song. Golden fields of autumn on an album cover call to mind the late local songwriter Kate Wolf, but a new self-titled album by Frankie Boots and the County Line has reclaimed the image and updated the ever-meandering strains of local folk music, current trends be damned.
Boots is an effective singer with just the right dollop of rasp in his inflection; he can be plaintive when required, but excels at bending notes and drawling out vowels for more emotional material. (This is on particular display during “Wolf in Pig’s Clothing,” a minor-key song that lumbers along somewhere between “St. James Infirmary” and “Rain Dogs” and sounds as if it’s sung by a sad, faithless, defrocked preacher.)
Live, Frankie Boots and band have a reputation for being upbeat, but as Boots tells me, many of the album’s songs were written after a failed relationship. As such, they span the wreckage, “from the initial sparks, to the inevitable demise, to the self-destruction that comes in its wake and even the personal redemption you find within yourself once the ash settles.” But what makes the album truly shine is the seven-piece band, especially Sally Haggard on vocals, Andrew Hobbs on pedal steel, and Josh Jackson playing trumpet parts reminiscent of Bright Eyes’ “Road to Joy.”
The band recorded in Santa Fe, N.M., in an adobe structure in the high desert, working and sleeping around the clock. (“The only thing we had to worry about outside those adobe walls,” Boots tells me, “was a beer run every afternoon.”) Such a tight-knit environment shows on the warm intimacy of the music, as well as the band’s countenance on the album cover—bedecked in all white, looking like a mystic cult.
Boots and his band play regularly, and it’s a safe bet they haven’t heard of 95 percent of Sonoma County’s long-lost former singer-songwriters who resonated in the same environs they now inhabit. But they’re pushing our favored local music forward, and they’re among the best doing so.