New Mexico is home to many legends: Billy the Kid, the Roswell Alien and a hometown kid whose real name actually happens to be Joe West.
This guileless, irreverent, social satirist rivets audiences at local stages, such as the Mineshaft Tavern in Madrid and the Cowgirl Bar in Santa Fe.
Recent refugees from the Austin, Texas, scene, West and his original band, The Sinners, quickly attained cult status with their driving beat and angst-ridden lyrics, referred to by one reviewer as “country-punk singer-songwriter based rock.”
Two years of onstage experimentation with alternate musicians in Santa Fe at the Cowgirl Bar (known as The Lamp Sessions) pushed his evolution into its latest incarnation. His new group, The South Dakota Hairdo Band, takes his original sound even further, but with less bluegrass. The recently released CD, South Dakota Hairdo, from Frogville Records, is dark, haunting and filled with sarcasm.
Often defined as “undefinable,” West’s wicked mix of pathos and humor is laced with a deep respect for humanity’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses, especially its addictions. West finds no subject unworthy, no tunnel too dark. Luckily, his respect for life and his brilliant sense of humor reassure us that there’s always a light at the end, even if it’s just a naked bulb.
“I may be working out my own demons here,” West explains. “My subjects have a kind of spiritual desperation, and they try to find salvation in all the wrong ways, through drugs and alcohol. I make fun of our own failures as humans: our pretenses, our greed, our dependency. But personally, I have an optimistic outlook.”
A contradiction in terms? Hardly. Joe’s subject matter and musical style somehow unite the good and the bad. And he’s paid his personal dues. After studying art and theatre in New York, he moved to Austin to pursue music. The varied scene there allowed him to explore traditional country sounds with a bluegrass feel. Early critics of his upbeat sound called it quirky “American honky-tonk.”
“My music’s really not all that new,” West says. “It’s narrative. I come from a tradition of folk artists, in my own family—but grew up loving rock.”
Intrigued most by the down-and-out and the deprived, West sings about life’s alluring losers who nevertheless fall in love, strive to be better and often live in trailer parks. “I get my ideas from the people I’m around and from my own personal identity,” he says.
His album, Jamie was a Boozer, is a cult favorite, and Jamie, one of his favorite musical antiheroes, has become his alter ego. West believes his future songs will explore Jamie’s continuing saga.
What makes Joe West a Western musician is his faultless ability to reflect what the West is all about—behind the scenes. At heart, it’s the individual, the maverick and the hard lovin’ loser. Whether he’s singing a tribute to the “Can Man,” a treasured local character who collects cans for a living, or songs like “Trip to Roswell, N.M.” or “Trailer Park Liberal,” you know this guy’s not kidding around. Where there’s satire, there’s usually great wit and sensitivity, not just cynicism. Joe West is a rising star in a world that hasn’t seen this much recording originality since Wayne’s World. And each time you listen to his music, it makes you laugh, weep or grab another beer.
Corinne Brown is a native Coloradan, Western author, staff writer for Persimmon Hill and fashion writer for Western & English Today and True West.