Honky-Tonk Heroes

The rainy day music of country rockers the Maldives.

"I don't think Seattle really has a country-rock 'scene.' I don't know anyone who goes out wearing a cowboy hat," laughs Jason Dodson, the 30-year-old singer-guitarist and chief songwriter for the local, well, country-rock outfit the Maldives. "But there is definitely a community here," he continues, "and I think we've become a part of that. There's a certain sound some people wanna hear, and they seem to be responding to us when we play it."

That sound—an evocative, oft-haunted confluence of acoustic strumming, mournful pedal steel and violin, regal piano, the occasional ragged electric-guitar outburst, and the rabbity-voiced lyrics of a lonely, soul-troubled singer—is a familiar one to anybody who's spent quality time with Neil Young, the Band, or Gram Parsons. It's a time- honored style of music that's been updated by countless contemporary artists, but unlike, say, My Morning Jacket or even Band of Horses, the Maldives don't paint the tradition with indie-rock colors.

Not that it was always that way. Dodson, who was born in Virginia and eventually migrated to Vancouver, Wash., says when he and guitarist Jesse Bonn formed the band nearly five years ago, "We started out doing this kinda Wilco or Flaming Lips–style indie-pop, but to be honest, I'm just not good at writing those kinda songs. I'm more inclined to write more country stuff. That's just where my heart is, so I started writing like that, and Jesse was like, 'I don't know what the fuck to do with this.'"

Making things more difficult were the constant lineup shuffles—guitarist Tim Gadbois was a steady member, but Dodson estimates that 30 players have come and gone during the group's existence. "There was all this conflict within the band, so I finally just killed it and started playing out by myself under the name the Maldives."

That lasted about a year; Dodson did a solo West Coast tour and some New York dates as well, but at the end of 2004, he was slated to perform his annual Christmas show at the Tractor Tavern and, feeling in the holiday spirit, he invited Bonn and Gadbois to join him.

"That worked out pretty nicely," Dodson recalls, "so after a year of me working on songs and developing my own sound, I got the guys back into it. I write the songs, but the boys flesh 'em out and make 'em whole."

In early 2005, the Maldives decamped to Anacortes to record their self-titled debut album; it didn't come out until July of this year, mainly because Dodson had to scrounge up enough cash to have it properly mastered and replicated. Not that he's complaining about the DIY approach or its prospects for success.

"My dad wrote me a letter. He was like, 'Look, Jason, you're not Bob Dylan, you're not Bruce Springsteen; these people were 21 when they first started making money making music.' He was like, 'You're getting on, maybe you should think about the future,' and all I could think was, like, 'Dad, you don't even know. . . . ' Music today is not run by major companies anymore—the old model of making money from music doesn't work anymore. Now it's like anybody can make it on their own if they have the time and the balls to do it, if they're making music that's worthwhile. The only thing you have to do as an artist is basically push yourself—you have to advertise and market yourself."

So far, so good. Dodson says he's developed great relationships with Easy Street, Sonic Boom, and KEXP. But, he notes, the Maldives' live shows are what are ultimately expanding the fan base, and the band—rounded out by drummer Ryan McMackin, bassist Chris Warner, and pianist/pedal steel player Chris Zasche—is working to evolve and improve with every gig.

"The stuff we're playing out now is definitely louder than what's on the record, which isn't sleepy, I don't think, but it doesn't have as much edge to it. We're a lot more engaging now, and people seem to dig it. If we're connecting with audiences and making them feel something, I can't ask for much more than that."

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