Words by Sean Moller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
In came an e-mail from Owen Ashworth late last week, expounding on a show he played in Houghton, Michigan, in the northern territory, on the Upper Peninsula, where the air gets more hollow and the world feels like a smaller, more isolated place than most. He described it as a "tiny Alaska," a place that once was being considered as the nation's capital when a copper mining rush made it rich with greenbacks and people, but is now more of a deserted blip where snow cats and other creatures with thick skin choose to live. Houghton is half ghost town and half college town, where the kids eat pasties - a pastry stuff with ground beef and rutabaga that was a pocket treat for the miners lo those many decades ago when the going was good, or relatively good - gamely embrace the city's relative disappearance. Ashworth, an imposing man physically and a gent of more tenderheartedness than you can shake a mining axe at, soaked up that atmosphere, way up there, 10 hours north of Detroit. He got into the history and the tragedy of a place that once had it all and then suddenly became dust - almost dust.
It's like other cities such as Williamsport, Pa., where the logging business dried up and so did Millionaire's Row. Now, it's left with the Little League World Series, some grimy bars and little else. The people living in these places, whether they know it or not, are the potting soil for the kinds of songs that Ashworth continues to make fresh as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. They are songs full of the shrapnel that downs most people, that kicks out their legs and sends them plummeting to earth from somewhere higher up. They are songs chocked with observances that border of depression and lamination. They don't usually seem to wallow or feel sorry for themselves - maybe because they're rarely all too autobiographical. They are seen and felt through the eyes of a writer who can afford to not be burdened by all of the weight that would come along with them actually being first-handed. Ashworth can afford to cut and edit to maximize where the punches can hit the hardest and still come out of the emotional scuffle without all too many nicks or bruises, though the sadsacks can carry it with them, like a recessive gene.
Ashworth isn't a sadsack - far from it -- and he's not painfully alone, but inside that heaving chest of his, is a remarkably competent appreciation for all that the sadsacks encounter and then endlessly deliberate upon, from the time they wake up until the time they rest again. The characters in Ashworth's songs - the forever dumped or overlooked, the regretfully nostalgic and those with the outlook that things have got to get better before they get worse - are not choking or drowning, but they're looking for a life raft, anything at all to help them get back to floating comfortably on the surface. Once again, Ashworth's joined by his buddies The Donkeys for a session that came on the heals of a nasty late night of driving and almost no sleep. This was recorded way back in the early summer and we've held it since then just to be difficult. Ashworth settled into the lounge room's couch, removed his shoes and hopped on the goodnight train for a short period of time while Ben Cartright railed through his session. The Donkeys hit a diner for some sustenance and when they all reconvened back in the studio, the difficult night - in which they encountered a frustrating officer who wouldn't let them snooze in their van - dissolved into a session that still retained some of those rickety qualities - perfect appetizers for the languishing sentiments in the music.
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