Traditional country music has always walked the line between humor and heartbreak. From the Stanley Brothers' murder ballads to Terry Allen's "Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy," it's a world of sin and redemption, pistol-packin' mamas and egg-sucking dogs. In short, the kind of place a kid would love.
Which is why singer/writer/painter/yodeler Halden Wofford — under his given name Bret Bertholf — created The Long Gone Lonesome History of Country Music.
"Yeah, the book is sort of a general history of country music for kids," says Wofford, "because, you know, children need to know how awful the world is."
He's kidding about that last part. Kind of.
"I worked in bookstores for a long time and I'm a big fan of illustrated children's books," explains the Rhode Island School of Design graduate, who also fronts the Fort Collins-based Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams. "I did children's events for [Denver's] Tattered Cover bookstore for about two years, and it occurred to me one day, 'God, I should just write about country music.' So I did."
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Long Gone Lonesome is an ironic yet loving work that traces country music back to its beginnings. With an illustrative style that falls somewhere between underground cartoonist R. Crumb and kids author Shel Silverstein (who also wrote Johnny Cash's "Boy Named Sue"), Wofford introduces pre-teens to Depression-era soup kitchens, Ryman Auditorium luminaries and the finer points of country hairdos, pets and "vee-hickles."
In fact, if Wofford had access to a book like that when he was a kid, things might have turned out, well, pretty much the same.
"In Texas where I grew up, it was all Skynyrd on the radio, you know, Molly Hatchet and 38 Special. But as I got older, it was just one of those things: All the music of your grandparents starts kind of knocking on your door. And then there's this huge history. The fact that there's 80 years of recorded country music, from Jimmy Rodgers on, was just exciting, you know, just so much to discover. Kind of like, 'Oh my God, where did this come from?' It had been there the whole time; I'd just been ignoring it."
But no longer. Wofford, whose father was a Southern Baptist deacon, recalls joining his first country band in 1995: "People wanted to hear you play Jimmy Buffett songs," he says of the Colorado country bar circuit. "Which is fine, I've got nothing against him, but I wanted to write and sing my own songs."
Wofford has since gone on to become one of the Front Range's best original country-western acts. The Hi-Beams' second studio album, 2006's Midnight Rodeo, is a beguiling collection, from the high lonesome title track — all pedal steel, mandolin and plaintive harmonies — to the spirited western swing of "Flatfooted" and "Betty Boop."
And while he's making no guarantees, Wofford expects to have a new album called Sinners and Saints out by the end of next month.
"We've been saying that for two years now, so I don't know. I think the new record, when it's finally done, will be a little darker than the others. But it's still coming from a place of strapping on the guitars, drinking and having a really good time."