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Possum Trot Orchestra: Night Crow
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
The best way to summarize The Possum Trot Orchestra and their musical output over the years would be growth. The group, primarily known for their expert playing of folk/bluegrass, now consists of John Minton (vocals/guitar), Susie Suraci (vocals/guitar), Rob Suraci (bass), Dave Kartholl (mandolin) and Jon Hartman (drums) and their newest album, Night Crow, contains some of the most straight-forward rock 'n' roll songs yet.
When Minton released Life & Times under his own name back in 2003, he handled all of the instruments and vocals, but he decided to branch out and released his second album, Going Back to Vicksburg, (2004) with an additional credit to both The Possum Trot Orchestra (which consisted of Minton, Kartholl and Charlie Gilbert) and The Flying Suraci (Susie and Rob). 2005 saw the release of the first self-titled Possum Trot Orchestra album, which scaled things back to just Minton, Susie and Rob. The following year they brought Kartholl back into the fold and released Harbor Road, an album which garnered immense critical acclaim and rocked a bit harder than previous albums. The response to the record was so strong that the musicians took a year off before working on the follow-up.
"We're incredibly gratified that people have been so accepting of what we've put out. The reaction to Harbor Road was almost overwhelming," Minton recalls, "But I've been amazed by the response to all the CDs I've done. Really the first PTO album and Harbor Road were so close together that it's hard in looking back to tell them apart sometimes. It was like we'd just finished recording The Possum Trot Orchestra, and there we were back in the studio doing Harbor Road, and then it was out and we just kind of went, 'Huh. How did that happen?'"
The time off treated them well and the band chose to add a full-time drummer. When it came time to decide who should man the sticks, the choice was obvious. "You know, in a way, Jon's been with us from the very start. The first real gig that Susie, Rob and I ever did together was at the old Toast & Jam coffeehouse, the first of their outdoor Folk Festivals," points out Minton. "Rob and Susie were still playing as the Flying Suraci and I was mainly playing solo, but we'd started jamming a lot and they asked me to sit in. Anyway, they'd run into Jon at jams and played with him some, and he came along to play drums. After we officially became PTO we played without drums for the first couple of years, except on the CDs, of course, where Rob did it. But at the time we were playing mainly coffeehouses since they were the venues open to original music then. Once we started stretching out and realized we really wanted a full-time drummer, Jon was it."
Hartman's tasteful and precise drumming is a perfect fit for the Possums and, in many ways, the band sounds brand new. There's an overall laidback vibe to many of the songs and the easygoing feel is punctuated by moments of pure pop/rock bliss. The album seems to meld the best musical bits from the Possums earlier folk dominated tunes and the more rockin' approach of their last few albums.
Minton and Susie share lyrical duty and if it's getting any tougher to write sharp and insightful songs, it isn't showing. "Knock on wood, but we're lucky that Susie and I have both been so prolific as far as the songwriting goes,” says Minton. “It's funny, we both had a decade or so where we basically stopped writing songs altogether, then we both started up again in the mid-1990s. Now besides PTO, we have to think about doing solo albums simply because we've got too many songs for the group - we've both got big backlogs and we're writing more all the time. But we're are own toughest critics, and we both throw out a lot more than we keep - or at least throw it back on the scrap heap for parts! And we constantly tinker and re-write.”
Minton continues: “As far as my own writing goes, I try not to over think it or be too analytical - I do enough of that in my day job! Like a lot of songwriters - and Susie says she feels this too - I have this sense of being given songs, not by any mystical force but just from having immersed myself in the music for so long. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes; some have taken over a year. Sometimes it's there before you know, and its like, 'How did I come up with anything that cool?' Sometimes you slave and slave over a song all the while saying, 'This piece of crap just ain't gonna do.' And you're usually right. There's no real rule - except that agony will probably be involved at some point. But that's all writing."
The songwriting for the dozen tunes on Night Crow is split right down the middle and Minton kicks things off with “Magdalene,” a peppy tune that, dare it be said, comes off as nearly funky. “Night Crow Blues” uses railroad imagery to tell the tale of spirits bound for the afterlife. When Minton hollers, "I feel a change comin' on!" you can't help but come out of your skin.
Two other Minton-penned tunes that really stand out are “So Glad You Went Away” and “Lacey Belle.” The former finds a fellow finding joy in the moving away of a former ladyfriend. "You had it sussed / this town is a bust," sings Minton, before mournfully concluding, "I can hardly breathe but I know I'll never leave." “Lacey Belle,” meanwhile, looks back at the leaving of a female with nothing but heartache and anger. "The homefolks wish you well / not me truth to tell," sneers Minton.
Susie's first offering on the album, “Close to Leaving,” is a stark look at the life of a blue collar worker who is sleepwalking through life with little to show for it. "I never wanted this life / you know it got forced on me / And every paycheck's a bribe to forget what I wanted to be," reminds Suraci.
Then, there's the tale of the guy that has quite the opposite problem. It seems the subject of “Out of Bed” doesn't even have a job, but he does have a supportive family and his wife points out, "It's been three months since the mill shut down … We're getting a check so we're doing alright … You're gonna set the world on fire when you get out of bed."
“Florence Nightingale” and “Boomers” both find females taking the men in their lives to task. “Florence” looks back on the days when her beau thought of her as the one he would grow old with, but, "Maybe it's true I learned a thing or two along the way." This one doesn't have a traditional happy ending. The protagonist in “Bloomers” corners her husband and points out that even though they may be in the twilight of their years, she is still very much in need of love and affection. "Well my heart ain't wrinkled /my heart ain't gray … So break with convention / baby / 'cause boom boom / I'm a-knocking at your door," warns the wife.
Night Crow is yet another solid album from the Possums and very much worth your time and money. Pick up a copy today at Wooden Nickel and be sure to check out myspace.com/thepossumtrotorchestra for upcoming gigs.