Though he’s been ingrained in punk and alternative rock for the vast majority of his professional career, Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett has always had a soft spot for country music, which became the basis for his solo/side project Chris Shiflett & The Dead Peasants.
The Dead Peasants released their debut self-titled album back in 2010 as a way for Shiflett to purge himself of some of those Americana influences that had been building up in his subconscious over the years. However, during the touring cycle for Wasting Light, the latest Foo Fighters record, Shiflett decided that if he really wanted to commit to playing this kind of music, he was going to have to totally immerse himself in it and stay away from the hard rock style he’d been grown accustomed to.
The result is All Hat and No Cattle, an album that features covers of nine classic honky-tonk songs by artists such as Don Rich, Waylon Jennings, Faron Young, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard (plus one new original song, “A Woman Like You”).
These covers are basically all true to the original songs, with the biggest differences being Shiflett and The Dead Peasants’ ability to utilize high-quality recording equipment to get a much fuller and more powerful sound out of their instruments. Other than that, though, the arrangements are the same as the original recordings, with a few exceptions, such as the extended outro at the end of their version of Wynn Stewart’s “Playboy” or the opening organ sound at the beginning of Waylon Jennings’ “Are you Sure Hank Done it This Way” (as well as some extra jamming at the end).
That being said, the improved production quality—and the instrumental intensity that accompanies it—really adds a lot to many of these songs and makes them feel fresh, even if most of them are 50-60 years old (at least). And even though these songs primarily stay in the same tempo, the heavier, more dynamic guitars of Shiflett and Dead Peasants guitarist Luke Tierney, as well as Mitch Marine’s powerful drums, breathe new life into these old honky-tonk standards.
Songs like Buck Owens’ “King of Fools,” Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop a Top” and “Skid Row” by Merle Haggard are re-envisioned with a (slightly) punk-rock energy and enthusiasm that packs more of a punch than the original lo-fi recordings. For instance, the Dead Peasants version of “Pop a Top” does a great job of really highlighting the song’s strong chorus, proving that it really wouldn’t be all that out of place on modern country radio (whether or not that’s a good thing is a different discussion).
But the song that benefits the most from Shiflett’s rock-influenced energy is Faron Young’s classic “Live Fast Love Hard Die Young,” a song that’s all about seizing the moment, with the focal point being the chorus’ main, punctuated rhythm. And thanks to the heftier tones of the guitars and drums on All Hat and No Cattle, that chorus resonates much more than in the original recording.
With that being said, the real treat on this album comes from Shiflett and Tierney’s excellent guitar tones that evoke the spirit of old honky-tonk music, while still sounding sharp and modern. They’re (obviously) best exemplified on the opening track, a cover of Don Rich’s “Guitar Pickin’ Man,” but they really shine throughout the album and establish a unique quality that blends the heavier electric guitar work of modern rock with these old songs.
Shiflett’s vocal performances are nearly always impressive and interesting, and he never tries too hard to imitate or stray away from the styles of the original artists; rather, he is able to appropriately insert himself into these songs in a way that feels quite natural.
The decision to put the classic Waylon Jennings song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” was a smart move on the band’s part, as the song is a tribute to Hank Williams and a condemnation of fame-seeking modern country artists (that is, modern in the 1970s). In other words, just as Jennings was turning to one of his country heroes to make sure he was doing things the “right way,” Shiflett, too, is looking back to pay homage to the people who influenced him as an artist.