Darkness and light with Dutch Underwood
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Growing up in the small town of Dixie, nestled amongst Clay, Fayette and Nicholas counties, Dutch Underwood spent most of his time in his bedroom, listening to music.
Obsessed with The Beatles and Pearl Jam, he sang in a few bands in high school before learning to play guitar in his late teens.
"My friends and I were starting a band, and we had two singers, so I needed something to do when I wasn't singing," Underwood recalled. "So I borrowed [my friend's] guitar, a 12-string that only had six strings on it, and started learning the chords he wrote out for me.
"That's pretty much where I stopped. I still use the same chords to write songs now as I did when I first picked it up."
Later, he ventured out as a solo artist. Earlier this spring, he released his 11-song debut album, "A Greater Fool."
Underwood, whose voice evokes Eddie Vedder, excels at writing catchy melodies and emotionally visceral songs. On his Facebook page, he describes his acoustic-based mix of rock, country and folk as "sad bastard music."
However, thanks to a new instrument, the 33-year old more recently found happiness in music.
"I picked up the ukulele in January of 2012," he said. "I wrote a song on it the second day I had it -- 'I'd Pay Almost Anything,' that appears on 'A Greater Fool.'
"I would write songs or record myself doing other people's songs while playing the uke, and it made me happy. I give the uke credit for stopping what might have been a bout with depression. Instead of thinking about negative things, I'd write or learn a song on the uke."
On "A Greater Fool," Underwood takes stories from his "sad bastard" life and turns them into charming songs. There's still some dark material, though, like the brokenhearted "Dixie, WV" about his deceased father, sister and brother.
"I'll probably mention them in songs as long as I write. It's not something that makes me sad, though."
More importantly for Underwood, he's not the only one who finds catharsis and/or happiness via his songs.
"My family members have heard the songs. I think it helps them deal with the sadness. All I know is it helps me. If it helps someone else, it's a bonus."
The biggest bonus just may come from his biggest fan.
"My mom has heard all of my songs," he said. "They seem to make her happy, maybe remind her of better times when her husband and kids were all alive.
"Maybe they make her happy to see that I can express myself in such a way. No one else in my family is very expressive. [They] bury their problems until they become something bigger. For some reason, I'm able to let these things out in my silly songs.
"My mom has been my biggest cheerleader," he continued. "She's the greatest person I've ever met, and I'm honored that she loves me. As long as my mom likes what I'm doing, I'm happy."
When it came time to record "A Greater Fool" late last year, Underwood teamed up with Juna's John Morgan, a talented multi-instrumentalist/producer, to help expand the songs' sonic atmosphere.
"If it's any good at all, it's because of John Morgan," Underwood said with a hint of self-deprecation, but giving credit where it's due.
"He's put out some great albums of his own, as well as produced some really cool stuff. I feel like I hit the lottery when he sent me a message that said, 'If we're going to do this, we'd better get started before I do something stupid, like get a job.'"
Friends for more than a decade, the pair recorded the songs in Morgan's home studio.
"The recording process seemed to make us better friends," Underwood said. "He wouldn't placate my ego if he didn't like something. He'd say something like, 'If this was MYYY song I would cut that part out,' and I'd usually agree because he's done this before, and I hadn't.
"I compare John's influence on the album to a comic book: I wrote the story and made the sketches, but he added color and brought the story to its full potential."
He added, "Unless I can clone John Morgan six times, I won't be able to create what we did on the album in a live setting, and that's OK with me."
Whether it's live or on the record, Underwood said he hopes people give his music a chance.
"I'm not interested in your money. I'm interested in your time. Take 45 minutes or so and listen to what John and I did. If you hate it, awesome; no hard feelings. If you like it, tell your friends."
Reach Nick Harrah at firstname.lastname@example.org.