Have today's music listeners lost touch with what makes a great song tick? Bellfuries bandleader Joey Simeone isn't entirely sure; he only knows that it's becoming increasingly easy to mollify the masses with prefab radio hits constructed by proxy in far-off Sweden. Empowered by TV competitions like The Voice, X-Factor and American Idol, singers aim for instant notoriety now, with none of the years spent learning their craft.
"But if you want to be famous, stick a sparkler up your ass, dress in a clown suit, and film yourself running around your neighborhood — I guarantee that you'll be famous," he growls. "But me? I just want to write good songs and try and make a living doing it."
Simeone, who just turned 45, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, learning to appreciate the best in almost all music genres, like punk, garage, metal, '60s pop, vintage country and Sun Session-era rockabilly. He also discovered classic reggae the way most punk rockers did — through that definitive introductory primer, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come.
All of these disparate influences would wind up congealing into one distinctly Americana-ish sound when he moved to Austin, Texas, and formed his quartet, which released its third album last year, the aptly dubbed Workingman's Bellfuries.
The band tracked the set with retro-minded producer Jimmy Sutton at his Hi-Style studio in Chicago, commuting back and forth from Texas until it was perfected. And Sutton — who also collaborates with Bellfuries bud J.D. McPherson — knew just what attributes to accent on the record. It opens with the loping Nashville twang of "Your Loving Arms," segues into finger-popping R&B ("Bad Seed Sown"), panoramic Everly Brothers pop ("Make the Mystery No More," "Under the Light of the Moon"), and chugging honky-tonk ("Baltimore," "She's a Woman").
It's the same working-class vibe that colors the work of like-minded revivalists like Social Distortion, The Blasters and Reverend Horton Heat. No single tag does the Bellfuries sound justice. It's just pop-open-a-cold-one-and-rock-out great.
Which sometimes proves problematic for the key songwriter. "What's really hard for bands like us, or even J.D., is, we all love roots music, as anybody with a brain does," he explains. "And yeah, we love old country music and Phil Spector pop. But whenever you get pegged as that, it's hard to be creative. You can only put out so many albums like that before it starts to wear thin."
These days, Simeone is just as likely to find himself sitting at the piano, chording out an intricate ballad in the vein of Ron Sexsmith. In fact, the Bellfuries disc currently underway will be unabashedly jangly and pop-leaning, he swears. Of course, how the band's longtime followers will respond to that is anyone's guess.
"That's the struggle for me," says Simeone. "I love the roots stuff, but I have a lot more to offer than just trying to copy Carl Perkins."