Maturity in rock and roll is a complicated thing. On the one hand, it can be an indicator of the slow, sad slide into irrelevance, a beacon indicating that the well of ideas and excitement is running dry. On the other hand, maturity just means that the jokes are sharper, the drinks stronger and the songs meatier, beatier and bouncier than ever before.
Maturity can take a third path, too, one where musicians neither burn out nor fade away, but just keep on chooglin’, a little wearier, but also a little bit wiser. In the best-case scenario, maturity in musicians means a willingness to stretch themselves past the limits that have been set socially, culturally and musically. It is a phenomenon that runs counter to our live fast, die young rock and roll mythos, but one that has bequeathed us some of the artform’s greatest moments.
It is also the phenomenon that defines Okey Dokey, the new album from Nashville’s Natural Child.
“I think a lot of people are bored with your clichéd mature,” bass player Wes Traylor tells American Songwriter. “There’s a lot of mature music out there, going back and listening to things like the Eagles’ solo albums. All that music is mature, I guess, but our generation have a different place that they’re going in their late 20s, early 30s and 40s that doesn’t have anything to do with Don Henley’s “End Of The Innocence” and shit, you know.”
The better comparison, at least in terms of Natural Child and Okey Dokey, might be Henley’s Eagles compatriot Joe Walsh. Both start in scuzzy, fuzzy garage bands, carving out a name for themselves one raucous party at time, Natural Child’s 2009 debut EP being one of the defining documents in Nashville’s nascent garage-punk scene.
Their Infinity Cat cassette Body Snatchers is a biker-psyche tour de force. Both Natty C and Walsh’s James Gang hit the road as hard-rockin’ trios, building loyal cults of fans with their hard-partyin’, rhythm-driven singalongs, 2010’s 1971 a snottier, lo-fi analogue to the heavy grooves of James Gang’s Rides Again.
2012’s For The Love Of The Game and Hard In Heaven find the band doubling down on their sharp, sarcastic wit and Southern swagger. Like Barnstorm-era Walsh, we see the band expanding their palette of tonal colors, drawing from a broader range of tempos and textures. Here we witness a band becoming comfortable with their own abilities, developing a looseness that lets each song glide from your speakers straight to your brain.
By the time Natural Child hits its country-rock phase – ostensibly “Let The Good Times Roll,” the weed-eating police run-in that closes Heaven – they are a limber, liquid outfit that flows through soul and psychedelia with ease. 2014’s Dance With Wolves is as earthy as it is cosmic, the songwriting a bleary and bemusing take on life in the fast lane.
Which brings us up to now, 2016, and the band’s latest, Okey Dokey, a first for the band’s own Natural Child Records. “End Of The Innocence” it is not. No, in this protracted, beleaguered example, Natural Child have just completed their But Seriously, Folks. It’s an album rife with humor, like the ribbing given to Facebook-era New Agers on “Transcendental Meditation” and the conspiracy-theorizing “NSA Blues,” complete with riffs that just have to be played on air guitar.
“This one was a little bit slower, more spread out of a process,” says Traylor. “Writing all of the previous records we had written at practice, every day in our shed, almost in order. Like there’s another one. This one the process was a little bit different, we wrote a little bit more on our own. People have long distance girlfriends and this was the first time since we’d started that we’d been sorta spread out.
“The road has always been great. But we’ve taken more time off [the road] this year than ever before, just for different reasons. This summer we’ve been writing a lot because we got a new practice space. We finally moved out of the shed in Seth’s back yard, into a warehouse space with some good buddies.”
The distance didn’t dim the vibes, though, instead giving the songs room to breathe and the band room to wander around their soundscapes. When the band switches gears from boogie-woogie casanovas – “Juanita,” “Benny’s Here” – to rock-flute slingin’, space-truckin’ jam-gods (“Outta Sight,” “It’s A Shame”), they deliver on all the drug-punk promises they made while bashing out garage rock on Nashville’s house show circuit. It’s mature but it is an all-together seedier version of the concept. Okey Dokey is adult debauchery of Walshian proportions.
“We’re just rock and roll, loud and sort of abrasive,” Traylor chuckles. “We don’t jam, really. We expand – how bout that? We don’t jam, we expand.”