Forrest Fire

Guitarist DJ Clem and drummer John Bersuch still wear many hats, though not so much literally since their costume-crazy former outfit Big Jeter played its alleged last show at the Pitch Music Showcase on April 4. Now, both shuffle between playing rock-informed folk with Forrest Whitlow and the Crash and country-tinged rock in Trouble Junction. (On the side, the two play one quarter of the basses in the low-end octopus WyCo Low Riders, and Bersuch composes schizophrenic symphonies under the name Minds Under Cover.) Whitlow suggests that there’s a competitive air about the groups, with impromptu oddsmakers handicapping which Clem-and-Bersuch project will be the first to reach the finish line’s spoils: a full-length label-supported album and a substantial regional tour. And though he’s merely joking about a battle between these bands (Mr. Whitlow, there’s a Jim Kilroy on line one), comparative analysis reveals that the two squads match up well enough to make for an intriguing fictional rivalry.

Bassist Calandra Ysquierdo and singer/guitarist Abigail Henderson conceived Trouble Junction last summer while sitting on a “white-trash dock” — Ysquierdo’s term — in Springfield. (In one of the group’s seemingly misleading concessions to the genre’s fashion, onstage, Henderson wears the cowboy hat she dons during such fishing trips.) The duo booked a concert, drawing from a set list Henderson composed for a series of solo acoustic shows. Hooking up fortuitously with Bersuch, the then-trio rounded out its sound in the two-week span between Trouble Junction’s birth and its first gig.

Henderson never considered herself a country songwriter; in her mind, those twangst-ridden tunes were “little folk songs.” But from the heartbreaking content to the thickly drawled delivery, her creations recall the work of rural traditionalists old and new. Both the musical style and her rich, expressive Grand Ole Opry-ready vocals belie Henderson’s New York City background. “I guess you always run away from where you’re from,” she reasons. Her dialect is convincing enough to fool even experienced ears. When Trouble Junction played on KLZR 105.9’s local-band showcase, a smattering of country-savvy listeners called in to describe its offerings as “good trucker music.”

On the other hand, Ysquierdo hails from Leavenworth, yet she always brings the rock. Her former outfits include the Pillows, Festish Obsession and Johnny Lane, a short-lived group of little repute from five years ago that offered the first electric musical outlet for Henderson and the first Kansas City band experience for Clem and Ysquierdo. Although she never had much of a taste for country before Trouble Junction, Ysquierdo quickly acquired a craving for its bittersweet flavor, crafting bass lines that rumble menacingly under Henderson’s sorrowful laments like slight tremors disturbing a funeral.

Henderson still contributes riffs and pens the band’s lyrics, but with the addition of Clem and Bersuch to the act, Trouble Junction’s songwriting became more of a democratic process. Within that open-input format, the members maintain there’s no tension between the group’s country and rock contingents. “We don’t ever argue,” Clem says. “It’s just good music — fuck it — it can be rock; it can be country.”

In Big Jeter, Clem and Bersuch walked a similar line between the genres, but the likeness between the two bands ends there. Trouble Junction delivers its material with an energetic, charismatic yet relatively straightforward live show, lessening the sting of a set’s worth of dour soured-relationship downers with an occasional quip. With Jeter, Clem, the group’s primary musical mastermind (singer Gary Huggins wrote the satirical/absurdist lyrics) composed some inspired cowpunk hoof-stompers, but the stunning presentation, boosted with audio/visual supplements and constant sight gags, took center stage.

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“I don’t really feel that much different,” Clem says. “Jeter and Gladiola (Ditchwater) handled all the antics anyway, and I was just holding the fort down.”

Clem shoulders a different load now, handling Trouble Junction’s busy booking schedule and drawing up touring plans, which include obtaining a van for the proposed two-week stint. He also sends copies of the band’s eight-song demo, which, despite being recorded direct-to-two-track in his house/practice space, captures Henderson’s vocals and Trouble Junction’s intricate guitar interaction perfectly. Included in this press pack is a photo, a commonplace ingredient in such mailings but one Whitlow suggests might pack extra persuasive power for Trouble Junction. “That’s a good-looking band,” he assesses, “and that’s a big part of marketing yourself.”

Trouble Junction’s members stare blankly at the mention of such an assets-centered strategy. Then, after a moment, Henderson and Ysquierdo squeeze plans for wet-T-shirt contests and cleavage-focused photos between fits of giggles. “That’s never entered my mind for a hot minute,” Clem says. “Even if it were a bunch of ugly bastards like Big Jeter, I’d still put the picture in there.”

By not capitalizing on its photogenic frontwoman à la No Doubt, Trouble Junction ensures a steady spotlight on Henderson’s potent weepers. Yet with Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys supplying local clubs with a fine, misty cloud of teargas, couldn’t the market become saturated with the likes of “Breakup Song” and “My Life Losing You”? “No,” Henderson says firmly, “because everybody fucking hurts.”

Whitlow agrees wholeheartedly. “My art is carved out of pain, whether it’s my own or someone else’s,” he says. His fourth and latest disc, Into the Gloaming, sets this sorrow in stark relief. Accompanied by only his guitar on his first solo recording, Whitlow introduces tragic characters, bids farewell to friends, and, in one particularly somber song, loses both his dog and his lover.

When billed as Forrest Whitlow and the Crash (not Forest Whitaker — KU forward Drew Gooden‘s dismay at being dubbed “Dwight” can’t compare with Whitlow’s disdain for continually being mistaken for the costar of John Travolta duds such as Battlefield Earth and Phenomenon), the singer/songwriter teams with Bersuch on drums and Clem on stand-up bass for relatively rocking acoustic workouts. His solo sets have long been a home for his more introspective, fragile material, but until a stream of fans started requesting a recording that captured Whitlow’s softer side, he’d never put these tunes on disc. As a result, some of Into the Gloaming‘s standout tracks stretch far into the past. “Colonial Inn,” a compelling study of a disoriented elderly woman who regards passersby with suspicion while she reads on her porch, and “Ole Dog,” the aforementioned double-downer, both date back several years.

In the midst of all the misery lies “Good to Be Alive,” a genuinely inspiring number about survival under dire circumstances. A dedication to Whitlow’s late sister, who was going through chemotherapy at the time the song was written, “Good to Be Alive” has also become an appropriate anthem in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “Sometimes you write songs before something happens, and they fit perfectly,” he muses.

Into the Gloaming‘s intimate approach provides an ideal match for Whitlow’s talents. His melodies soar, particularly on the subtle, sparsely instrumented “Endless Carousel.” His harmonica wails with intensified vigor without its usual accompaniment, like a screaming child who fears he’s been abandoned. And his voice trembles with unique vulnerability, especially on “The Villa,” where it fluctuates delicately like Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz‘s wobbly melancholy mumble. But though he’s proven he can excel at stripped-down fare, Whitlow continues to search for a lead electric guitarist, who would give the band enough crunch to contend with rock-ready spaces such as the Hurricane.

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In the meantime, he has started an impressive minimovement within Midtown’s boundaries but under its radar, drawing respectable crowds at Prospero’s Books, Westport Coffee House and the Westport Flea Market. “It’s a pretty awesome scene,” he raves, “an underground for our type of music.”

In a double-duty performance for Clem and Bersuch, Whitlow and the Crash team with Trouble Junction at the Westport Flea Market on Sunday, April 28.

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