There’s this girl I know who is afraid to polka. Not so much afraid, she says, as pained by the very idea of doing that particular dance. This is the swingier, honky-tonk, Sunday social sort of polka I’m talking about here, not the beer-barrel kind. But that likely doesn’t matter. Some of her trouble probably has to do with the fact that it’s a fast dance—three rapid-fire, rabbity steps to each side, tapped out dangerously close to your partner’s toes. Some of it also might have to do with images salted away somewhere in the corners of her mind, images of full, petticoated, Grand Ole Opry-style skirts with the eponymous dots. And a lot of it, to be honest, probably goes back to the fact that I’m never really sure what step a song calls for until I get my partner out on the floor and fumble around for a few measures, until I, as they say in the more polite country-dancing circles, find my feet.
But, despite all the things working against it—the quick tempo, the associations of the word “polka,” and my own leftfootedness—she does, from time to time, consent to dance with me. But only when Cash for Junkers are playing. That in itself, I think, is a measure of the band’s success.
For sure, if anyone can be thanked for making classic country safe again, it’s Cash for Junkers. For a couple of years now, C4J have been soldiering through Missoula’s crowded bazaar of punk, bluegrass and hippiecore rock to stake out a little space of their own, a few square feet of parquet flooring where they have managed to bring back the nearly ossified art of honky-tonk. Of course, it’s not been easy. Since the band’s inception in the summer of 1998, C4J’s lineup has seen more faces than the entire cast of “Hee Haw,” going from a slapdash trio making irregular showings at Farmer’s Market to an honest-to-god weekly sextet at the Cowboy Bar. But during that time, those of us who were listening could tell that they were finding their bones, working their way out from roadhouse songs and streetcorner arrangements to a full-blown stage show of old-time highway classics. Today, tunes like the gospel-gilded “You Must Come in at the Door” and the folk-flavored “Lay That Pistol Down” are the foundation of their weekly set, almost-forgotten standards that have been brought out again and burnished to a high polish. Frontman Tyler Roady and expert fiddler Grace Hirshberg may take some credit for helping to build the skilled, rich, upbeat sound that has made the band such a powerful Thursday night draw. But Marco Littig (dobro), Matt Haugh (bass), John Rosett (guitar and mandolin) and Brock Gnose (drum) do more than just round out the work. Together, they craft country.
And sure, there’s something hokey about them—a hint of overweening, maybe—with everyone decked out in string ties and two-tone shirts. But there’s something to be said for putting on airs when you’re doing what they do, in front of a crowd of kids who don’t know Roger Miller from Wade Hayes. Besides, if nothing else, Cash for Junkers makes it clear that they don’t want you to take anything too seriously. Which is probably what gets my friend out there on the floor with me faster than anything else. I sure know it’s not my dancing.
Cash for Junkers plays Thursday nights at 10 p.m. at the Cowboy Bar.