REX HOBART performing with Slaid Cleaves , Gurf Morlix and others as part of Linda McRae's Songwriters roots roundup at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Wednesday (August 27). $8. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
where have all the cowboy duets gone? Time was you could count on a solid stable of twang-totin' twosomes to make moony eyes at each other as they crooned country tunes in a tender or tearful pas de deux on the open range. Think Roy Rogers and Dale Evans riding their ponies down those Happy Trails. Or Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and, er, Waylon and Willie.
You'd be hard pressed to come up with contemporary counterparts to those classic two-hander ballads. I mean, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock? Who're we kidding?
That's why it's so refreshing to hear the achy-breaky elegance of Golden Ring, a duet between Buffalo-based honky-tonk belter Rex Hobart and inimitable alt-country torch singer Kelly Hogan. The centrepiece of Hobart's awesome 2002 dusty country weeper, Your Favorite Fool (Bloodshot), Golden Ring has the twangy je ne sais quoi of an old-timey two-step.
"I don't hear a lot of honesty when I listen to pop-country radio," explains Hobart, pondering the dearth of duets in the contemporary country scene. "It sounds like they're just reading the demographic reports. When I decided to start writing and playing country music, I realized, 'Yeah, there's gonna be some corny songs written, and I'm gonna sing the hell outta them.'
"Something interesting about any duet is that it's these two sexes harmonizing and, at least from a heterosexual point of view, that's what relationships end up being about. Two people singing together on the same song is pretty sexy. The main thing is having a couple of people who can experience the sensitivity the song requires in the same way."
Sensitivity this guy's got in spades. There's nary a moment of respite from weepin' in his whisky throughout Your Favorite Fool's streamlined 35 minutes. Hobart warbles mournful tales of cheating, getting cheated on, fighting, breakin' up and trying to repair his broken heart, backed by pared-down honky-tonk strumming and neat pedal steel and dobro accents. This is country straight up.
Since Hobart's got it pretty sweet, with a happy marriage and a supportive wife, the raw honesty of his storytelling seems even more impressive. In fact, he says, the potential for storytelling and "linear narrative structure" was one of the things that inspired the Missouri-born musician to start playing old-school country music.
Before turning to twang, Hobart did time in a Kansas City hardcore/math rock band. But once he discovered that "there were only so many weird chords I could find, and I wanted to challenge myself to write with real straightforward straight chords," his punk rock passion fizzled out.
Along with changing his tune, he changed his name from Scott to the more rough-and-tumble Rex.
The new moniker is eerily close to that of another musical shepherd of lost souls - a semi-famous gospel singer and televangelist from the 60s and 70s by the name of Rex Humbard.
"Nobody's ever brought that up before!" Hobart laughs incredulously. "I remember his name and his face from TV."
Luckily, he's never had to deal with a posse of angry evangelical worshippers who showed up at his gig expecting the wrong Rex.
"My name comes from my dad, the original Rex Hobart. He played and sang around the house a lot when I was growing up. My folks divorced when I was eight, but he was still around until he was shot and killed when I was 15. I figured when I started playing the music my parents had listened to, I'd make it totally Freudian and take his name."