For many 2011’s Sleep Beneath the Willow was the start of a Daniel Romano musical addiction that no amount of time or twelve-step program could ever break.
Growing up in Welland, Ontario, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, there was only one radio station that my family ever listened to: CHOW 1470 AM or “C-HOW,” as it was lovingly referred to by the locals. CHOW was a country and western station in the truest sense of the word. They played the new country/rock hybrid hits for sure, but I believe the bulk of their audience was more inclined to want to hear George Jones over Alabama. My Dad liked to listen to the station for news and weather updates, whereas we kids loved to listen on winter mornings to hear whether schools were closed due to snow. Fellow Wellander Daniel Romano is younger than me but right from the first time I listened to his 2011 album, Sleep Beneath the Willow, I imagined he and his family must have spent their fair share of time tuned in to C-HOW, as well.
Though technically, Sleep Beneath the Willow was a new country album in 2011, there was nothing “new country” about it. In his memoir, Cigar Box Banjo, the late Paul Quarrington equated listening to a couple of hours of New Country as feeling like “you’re attending some twelve-step program in which the participants, unhinged from their crutch of dependency, carom wildly from emotion to emotion.” Sleep Beneath The Willow is the exact opposite. Its eleven songs are flecked with classic AM country music sensibility: simple storytelling, superb songwriting, and the heart and soul of a consummate performer.
Where Quarrington warns that “[country music in general] can be emotionally overwrought, and in the wrong hands, it is manipulative and maudlin,” Romano handles these delicate (and sometimes very dark) stories of love and loss with beauty and ease. It all comes down to the combination of performer and song, a magical alchemy that hits the right balance between emotion, intelligence and integrity. After ten years, I still get reduced to tears by the haunting ballad “Louise,” a song inspired by visions his grandfather had soon after Romano’s grandmother passed away. You can hear the love and memories racing through Romano’s mind as he laments on his grandfather’s behalf, “And I wish that I could feel her / Soft breath against my face / But I’ll meet her when the sun goes down in another time and space.” It’s heartbreaking, heartwarming, and acutely authentic.
With the hindsight of his entire record catalogue to date, Sleep Beneath the Willow feels like the first of Romano’s subsequent genre explorations, effortlessly moving through country touchstones like humorous honky-tonk (“Hellen’s Restaurant”) and folk/gospel sing-alongs (“Paul and Jon”). What’s apparent right from the opener “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)” — both then and now — is that Sleep Beneath the Willow is the genuine goods. It’s the natural successor to Romano’s punk roots with Attack in Black and the pure folk of the previous year’s Workin’ For the Music Man, as well as an earlier collaboration with Julie Doiron and Frederick Squire. The superb George Jones homage “Hard On You” (I dare you not to belt aloud to its perfect chorus) remains a stand-out — it honours the tradition of country songwriting spanning back a century without rehashing the past.
As earworm-appealing as Side One’s highlights are, it’s the deep cuts into Side Two that showcase Romano’s burgeoning songwriting genius. Melodies grow more complicated and dense on “I Won’t Let It,” “Never a Forced Smile,” and showstopper “There Are Lines in My Face,” each a hint at where his muse would take him over the next three years as he explored the idea of “Mosey” music. In 2011, Sleep Beneath the Willow was a future-forward record, carving a new tradition of modern-day storytelling on which Romano stood at the forefront. At the time, we had no idea where that future would take him musically, but for many, Sleep Beneath the Willow marked the start of a Daniel Romano musical addiction that endures with each new release and that no twelve-step program could ever break. As he sings in that heartbreaking opening song, time may change everything, but ten years has not changed or diminished the homespun artistry and allure of this early and essential chapter in Romano’s exemplary musical canon.