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Folk music evolved into the commercial product it is today thanks to the tireless work of affluent, well-educated white people who, for reasons as old as The American Dream, chose to deal with class guilt and the anxieties of the modern world by mythologizing life in the sticks. This is how a man from Massachusetts named Bill Danoff came to write a song called “Take Me Home, Country Roads” about West Virginia—a state he’d never visited—and then record this song in New York with a man from Colorado named John Denver.
That song turned 40 this month, just a few weeks before D.C. folkster Mark Charles Heidinger released his third full-length under the moniker Vandaveer. Folk listeners may never have cared about authenticity, but Dig Down Deep is a record that can withstand some judging. It is not a bougie homage to the hard-scrabble life, nor is it aimed exclusively at the acoustic-and-plaid crowd. It’s a good album for getting high and going for a walk, recovering from a bad day, or writing something sincere on the Internet. Occasionally, it reaches. Occasionally, the choo-choo acoustic guitars and saloon-y piano riffs feel like bells and whistles. Nearly every track features vocal harmonies, and I could’ve stood to hear Heidinger, a former member of These United States, on his own more often (as he was on his previous outing, Divide & Conquer).
But even these maladies have a cure. For every moment in which the listener feels subjected to Heidinger’s music—wailing is to folk as “ohh” and “yeah” are to Top 40 pop—there are fives moments that reward with inventive melodies neatly packaged in strings, reverb, and muted drum beats. And even, on occasion, truthful lyrics, like when Heidinger sings, “When you shed your skin down to your bones/you know a house don’t make a home/and you build it all alone/that’s just a hollow skeleton of sticks and stones.” His loneliness registers, even if you’ve heard variations of the “house is not a home” motif in songs by Burt Bacharach, U2, and Ocean Colour Scene. But Heidinger’s still got you covered: “You carry on/in story and song/with what’s right, what’s wrong/we’ve all heard it before,” he sings on “Pick Up the Pace,” before instructing us to—yes, you guessed it—pick up the pace. Don Giovanni’s libretto, it ain’t. But it ain’t Denver, either, and that’s a good thing.