Play hard 

Cash for Junkers Sobers Up

It’s Grammy night, and two screens at the Old Post Pub take you there live. The beautiful people are prancing around with statuettes and thanking everybody (or slouching in their chairs and glowering if they didn’t win anything) and living their fifteen minutes to the hilt. For all the thanking and the blessing and the general carrying on, no one seems especially mindful of just how fleeting fame can be. How fleeting it tends to be, even. In five years, half of today’s cutting edge will be lucky to get cameos on bad TV sitcoms. In ten years they could be clawing each other’s eyes out for headlining slots on the county fair circuit.

Cash For Junkers, on the other hand, huddled ‘round in interview formation at the Old Post, would probably jump at the chance to play a small-town fair tomorrow. Or a barn-raising. Or a quilting bee. Anyplace where down-to-earth folks work hard to play hard, and as long as they dance their fool heads off.

“We were looking out over a sea of dancers,” says guitarist/vocalist Tyler Roady of the band’s biggest show of late, the Foresters Ball. “That’s what it’s about, man. That’s why you play music, those gigs.”

If it seems like Cash For Junkers—Roady, Grace McNamee, Marco Littig, John Rosett, Jesse Haberman and new bassist Sean Steinebach—have been gone a lot lately, it’s because they have. They’ve been laying off the local gigs to get Steinebach up to speed after the departure of original bassist Matt Haugh, who moved back to Illinois in December to pursue a graduate degree in blacksmithery. They’ve been playing more out-of-town shows lately, too—in fact, Steinebach joined Cash For Junkers the day before one such show. Band members keep their weekends open several months in advance in expectation of dates on the road, even ones that haven’t been scheduled yet.

Playing farther afield than Montana is also part of what slide/steel guitarist and vocalist Littig means when he talks about a stronger regional (as in Pacific Northwest) presence for Cash For Junkers, though it naturally means more and longer drives and more time away from home, hearth—and family. The baby crying in the background when I call Littig to set up the Old Post interview says more, in fact, than any of the band members do about the balance Cash For Junkers is trying to strike. Make a little money, play some kick-ass shows out of town, have some adventures but hopefully never really stray too far from home sweet home. Regional presence aside, what sort of yardstick do they use to measure their success locally?

“There’s lots of peaks and valleys,” says Littig. “Valleys and plateaus, even. But it’s always about people coming out and dancing. Success for us is also that we’re writing more songs, and that translates into the energy level we put into shows and what we get back from the crowd.”

“The CDs have also been benchmarks,” he continues. “Especially this last one with mostly original music. We’re keeping up the pace—in fact, a better pace than we were in writing the songs on Sobers Up.

“We probably have six more originals in the bag now,” adds Tyler Roady, “Ready to record.”

Sobers Up has four covers and ten originals; its predecessor had covers and originals in roughly inverse proportions. Roady and Littig are the band’s two main songwriters, although members are quick to clarify that the band is a thoroughly democratic institution. McNamee and Rosett also contribute one song each to Sobers Up: “Princess Song,” which McNamee wrote last spring, and Rosett’s mandolin-driven “Number Two Rag.”

“I’m pretty bold,” says fiddler and vocalist McNamee. “I don’t get intimidated by these guys. In terms of songs, though, I’ve only written a couple and they’re really simple. These guys’ songs are very complex and getting more complex, not really straight out of the tradition of bands like this one. Mine are right-down-the-middle songs. The stuff that these guys have been coming up with is much more of a hybrid, and I think their songwriting has been driving the band in a whole new direction.”

“And,” adds Littig, “we’re a band. A lot of the songwriting, in terms of composition, comes about in the collective mind. Someone will lay out a template, and sometimes it’s more specific and other times it’s more vague, but we’re all totally engaged in it. We take a song and essentially we all begin to own it.”

“It’s one of the most exciting things about being in a band,” says Roady. “I’ll write something and have one idea about how it’s supposed to go, and then when I play it with the rest of the band I hear ideas that I never would have thought of. They hear something in it that I didn’t hear myself.”

On the other hand, members say, the songwriting in C4J has also advanced to the point where not everyone performs the finished product together—and that truly says something about the collective comfort level in the band.

“Up until now,” says Littig, “It’s always been like almost every song we have, almost everyone is playing on. Now we’re thinking more in terms of ‘What does the song truly require?’ We can play it as an ensemble and eliminate three people because we have the luxury and the freedom to do that.”

What, like, Hey, you three—go take a powder?

“Absolutely,” says Littig. “They go and get beers.”

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