While traveling to my hometown a few days ago, I wandered into a truck stop, and it was an interesting environment to behold. Inside were a few truckers stopping for a quick cup coffee to keep them awake on their endless highway trip. Even though I’ve always envied their freedom, I pity their loneliness. Seems as though it’d be a one-way ticked to insanity.
Inside this truck stop was also a place to grab a bite to eat. And when you hear people use the term “greasy spoon,” this is exactly what they’re talking about. Served up 24 hours: grease with a side of food. About 15 people or so were there, all work-beaten, blue-collar folks. As I looked at them, I saw pain and hopelessness tattooed into their sunburnt faces. It was almost a perfect Southern Gothic scene… except for the music playing on the radio station. The mainstream country didn’t quite represent what I was seeing. One guy singing about sipping margaritas in Mexico. Another complaining about going to the dentist office. Yet another talking about MySpace profiles. Oh, and “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” One look at these people told me that even the most painful trip to the dentist was like a mosquito bite compared to what they go through on a daily basis, and there was NO way that they spent time browsing MySpace… if they even knew what it was. “This isn’t right,” I thought. “This music is not the working man’s music in any way.”
Fast forward to today, as I break out Dollar Store’s newest album Money Music. I had never heard of the band before, but as soon as I hit “Play” and the loud guitar of the title track fired up, I knew I was in for a treat. By the time I had finished, I had realized something else about this relatively unknown rock outfit: they were making the music that should have been played at that truck stop. And at factories across this country. Simply put, this album is blue-collar America: both musically and lyrically.
The first thing listeners will notice about Money Music is that Dollar Store is one tight band. And why not? All four members have a long history of playing in great live bands. Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Deano Schlabowske and bassist Alan Doughty made their reputations as part of the roadhouse band The Waco Brothers. Drummer Joe Camirillo broke in with the Hushdrops, while lead guitarist Tex Schmidt was a member of the German rockabilly punk band The Roughnecks. Together, they have created an album that dabbles in blues, country, classic rock, and even a little punk. In other words, this is a roots rock record in the truest sense of the word. A great mix of the glory years of The Rolling Stones, the dark, sinister edge of Black Sabbath, and the dark working man tales of Merle Haggard, Money Music is a fascinating listen musically.
Even more intriguing is the portrait that Dollar Store paints with its songs. It’s certainly not a pretty sight. Almost thirty years ago, Bruce Springsteen released a masterpiece of an album called Darkness On The Edge Of Town. That album took place in the “Badlands,” where men “worked their whole lives for nothing but the pain.” Well, Money Music takes place there too, and it’s just as brutally honest as The Boss’ 1978 record. With the exception of “Scrap Truck” and “Hurricane Charley,” which are solid metaphorical pieces, Schlabowske’s lyrics are very direct and to the point… and his Dixie-via-Milwaukee worn, soulful vocals ensure that these lyrics are effective. The Chuck Berry-esque opening title track may be a fun little rock-and-roll romp, but after listening to the whole record, it’s easy to see that the song is merely a work of sarcasm. The rest of the album shows its listeners the dark side of the blue-collar world… a world where, as the band puts it in a bass-heavy drone, “work is its own reward.” Each song is its own tragic tale. In the fast-paced “Wasting Away,” a man writes home to his woman telling her the terrible truth about his new job in a factory town, and another man that says love and life has left him hopeless in the Stones-flavored “Twisting in the Wind.” Hopelessness can also be found in “One Red Cent, One Thin Dime,” in which a man laments that his friend’s big dreams will be in vain. After all, as the band says in the Schmidt-guitar heavy punk number, the whole world has become a “Company Town,” where even beer has become too expensive. Of course, there’s a little infidelity and murder too in the countryish “In the Gravel Yard,” and even a broken down, forgotten Nashville “Star” who is not looked upon kindly by the rest of the townsfolk. Yet, at least one factory worker refuses to sign away his pride, and 10% of his soul, in the bluesy “Reserve the Right.” And, in the album’s closer,” one man actually escapes this dark world and reflects upon his days “down in the catacombs with the skulls and bones” in “Dying Light.” Is it depressing? Sure, but Dollar Store gives listeners a brand new respect for the plight of the blue-collared crowd with each song on the record.
Still, even though the album is a reality that’s hard to swallow, Dollar Store’s upbeat classic rock and roll arrangements refuses to let it become a downer. Like the factory workers themselves, their music looks adversity straight in the eye and pushes forward. Despite the pain of the lifestyle, those who live it somehow make it through, and find a way to make their lives as enjoyable as possible. That is the beauty of this album. It’s survival, and it’s a winner in every way. Money Music may not be a cure for the working man’s blues, but it sure will give them… and folks of all walks of life… a reason to rock.