No, Portland is not the home of Willie Nelson or Townes Van Zandt, but we do have Wesley Allen Hartley—a country/folk asset giving this Northeastern city Texan comfort.
Dusty roads, rusty road signs, cheap whiskey and heart-wrenching stories are at the heart of country/western music. Few listeners pick up an old fashioned country album to use it as a pick-me-up. Hartley doesn’t stray from this tradition when he opens Convenient Repairs with, “So I am / Sad to have lacked so much.” Match these words with a drearily slow strumming acoustic guitar and a voice that sounds like it was worked hard and put away wet, and an appropriately somber picture comes into focus.
What could possibly be so great about a worn-out musician singing about his heartache? Hartley’s work is most certainly great, but he uses his music to reach a different objective than most. Happiness is not the point, but this album evokes a deep sense of empathy that is intensely fulfilling. Lyrics like “This one’s for the last drop. . .never wanted to hurt anyone / I’ll be better when I can pull my shit together” tell an important story that supersedes the superficial quality of many “happy” songs that currently dominate the top-40 charts. Hartley forces you to begin to understand what true sadness must feel like.
Hartley sings about things that matter. His lyrics tell stories for what they are, happy or not, and, unfortunately, life is often tragic. While music that makes us feel better is indispensable, it should not detract from the sad sounds of Convenient Repairs. This album serves an equally important purpose—giving us brutally genuine music that shows what the other side of the coin is like. “Dead Beat,” for example, sings “Kids in line dyin’ for ice cream, all sayin’. . .you’re less than fake / I’m a deadbeat.” This feeling is certainly underrepresented in popular music, unfortunately avoided instead of looked into.
The intrinsic worth of Hartley’s music is undeniable. It is becoming increasingly rare to hear these kinds of subjects when they are so stigmatized and, after all, a hard sell. Hartley is not only expressing himself, but he is doing so in a fashion that runs against the grain. The days of old-time country may be over, but Convenient Repairs keeps the tragic and raw spirit alive and rightfully not-so-well.
This is not to say, however, that Hartley is nothing more than a throwback. While comparing him to Van Zandt and Nelson, as done above, is appropriate, it does not give the whole picture. Hartley, a texas native, brings a culmination of his influences together to create a sound that is a thoughtful extension from his predecessors. Convenient Repairs shows a point in the evolution of country/folk songwriting; and if we live in a just world, Hartley will influence the next generation just as the previous did him.