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It took a bonfire, booze, a second divorce, and the perfect harmony partner to pull Richard Newman from his long hiatus, a fifteen-year musical funk. The poet, playwright, and editor of River Styx magazine had barely picked up his guitar in the years since his bands Junkbox and The Neverminds were staples of the St. Louis music scene. But one night while drinking by a firepit, he and his pal Shanie Latham started singing George Jones, Beatles, and Jimmy Dale Gilmore songs. Their sound triggered an avalanche of dormant songwriting.
A few months later, multi-instrumentalist and visual artist Nick Nihira joined them on bass, banjo, and vocals, creating a harmony-based Appalachian bluegrass folk-pop. Initially the trio christened themselves The Jarflies, but the night before their first show, Nick’s house burned to the ground, all his instruments, artwork, and worldly possessions gone to ash and smoke. Thereafter they became The CharFlies. Richard phoned his former Junkbox bandmate Dave Melson, of Melody Den and numerous other bands throughout the years, and Dave joined them on upright bass. The foursome released an EP, Blowfish Rodeo, in July 2013. Percussionist Steve Meyers, formerly of Psychedelic Barnyard with Nick, joined the band in 2014 during production of their first full-length CD and newest release, Linoleum Angel.
Divorces, fires, breakups, surgeries, and highway accidents haven’t deterred this unlikely band of musicians. They use their humor and misfortunes to cobble together what they call junk-folk—their own brand of Americana that draws on bluegrass, gospel, psychedelic pop, avant garde, country, and blues and keeps evolving. Any given song from Linoleum Angel or their live set could include mandolin, accordion, banjo, slide guitar, washboard, kick-drum, melodica, toy piano, harmonica, fiddle, campfire pots, and three-, four-, and five-part harmony. Psychedelic bluegrass? Hobopop? Junk-folk? Whatever you call it, three years, fifty songs, and a new album after that fateful night by the firepit, The CharFlies keep evolving and growing and singing the joys and sorrows of the world.
The band playfully calls its music "junk-folk," and while there are some loose moments and purposefully rudimentary percussion, the instrumentalists craft more than passable strains of bluegrass and folk. Newman is a fair strummer and is well-versed in the patterns of Americana songcraft, but it's Nick Nihira's work on banjo and mandolin that gives color to these tracks. (He also designed the woodsy, earth-toned album art and takes the lead on the dark-tinted song "Mary.") Shanie Latham's harmony vocals are a crucial element to the band's sound, though when paired with Newman's high tenor, some of the harmonies are less than distinct. Latham's voice sounds almost trepidatious on opening track "Whip-Poor-Will Holler" (one of a few songs here that's a little too by-the-numbers with its rural, rusticated signifiers), but he shows control and range on the gently loping "Place in My Heart" and elsewhere on the disc.
Given his background in poetry, it's hardly surprising that Newman's lyrics are thoughtfully wrought -- though his words are always in service of the songs, and not vice-versa. He can write clever and layered blues songs, such as the Waits-ian "My Baby Cries When I Don't Come Home" and the genuinely funny "Five Bags of Poison," a rootin', tootin' ode to chemotherapy -- though some of those moments sound a little too much like artifice. His words are better when they sneak up on you, and Linoleum Angel is flecked with lines that ring with truth while they show the writer's scalpel-like precision.
"Song for the Dead of Winter" sounds like the title of a Gordon Lightfoot tune -- the music isn't too far off either -- but certain lyrics stand at attention: "Let me muddy the earth with blood from my veins and christen the dirt with spilled wine," Newman sings. In another context that could be some fin de siècle suicide note or a metalhead's creed, but amid cheery and strummy folk music it illuminates Newman's eye for detail and skill at turning a phrase.
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