The first clue that Sonny Smith had taken a detour should have been the hat he sports on the cover of his new album. As the mastermind behind the San Francisco band Sonny & the Sunsets, Smith has come across on record as an affable singer and songwriter. Never in a hurry or overstuffed, his songs have straddled the divide between indie folk and garage rock.
The band’s latest album, featuring a portrait of Smith in what appears to be a straw hat, marks an abrupt sea change for the group. “Longtime Companion” summons the raucous vibe of 1970s country rock while nursing Smith’s broken heart.
“I had an idea a while back that it would be cool if the third Sonny & the Sunsets record was an anomaly,” says Smith, who brings his band to Johnny D’s on Tuesday. “People years from now are going to say, ‘But did you ever hear that third one, the country one?’ Because the next one is a rock ’n’ roll record again.”
SONNY & THE SUNSETS
Smith was careful not to push the stylistic departure too hard. Just to play some gigs around town, he started a spinoff band with a name that we can’t print here. Let’s just say it rhymes with Buckaroos, in a tip of the cap to the classic country group led by Buck Owens. Gradually, Smith integrated his side band with his usual Sunsets lineup, and together they made “Longtime Companion.”
The album’s reference points were specific: Townes Van Zandt, Gene Clark, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and outlaw country artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. It’s drenched in lonesome pedal steel, bass lines that sound lifted from a jazz combo, and perhaps the least likely instrument you’d expect in a country context. “I got crazy with the flute and put it all over the record,” Smith says. “My friends had to have an intervention.”
As he wrote about the demise of his relationship, it occurred to him that the heartsick lyrics would work well on a country record.
“You certainly wouldn’t want to be narrow-minded about it and say, ‘I have to play country because I’m sad,’” he says. “It’s not a conscious decision to do that, but there must be a reason why people gravitate toward certain types of music.”
“Longtime Companion” is the rare breakup album that doesn’t point fingers or wallow in self-pity. “The girl I wrote the songs about is my best friend and the mother of my child. We’re close, and she would come to the shows when I first started performing these songs about us,” he says. “It was more awkward than anything else. I was like, ‘Maybe you could go to the bathroom while I sing this next one.’ ”
In the end, he wasn’t too concerned about how she would react. He didn’t need to be.
“I wasn’t too worried because I thought she came out looking pretty good on the record,” Smith says. “It’s not one of those breakup records where I sit around and talk about how much she [expletive] me over. There were a couple of reviews that wanted me to do that. But I thought that was dumb. It wasn’t supposed to be an angry Elliott Smith kind of thing. It was more that I was sad that it was ending because it had been good.”
Already the album has resonated within Smith’s social circle, a testament to the old saying that misery loves company.
“I have some friends who have been breaking up, and they’ve e-mailed me and said, ‘Hey, man, I’ve been listening to your new record and it’s killing me,’ ” Smith says. “But I guess that’s what these records are for — so that we can all be in the same club.”