Don’t let the sadness and down-on-their-luck characters on Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner fool you. The new release from Dallas singer/songwriter John Pedigo, one half of folk-rock duo The O’s, also radiates plenty of hope, joy and exuberant defiance in the face of loss. Pedigo’s father was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, and Pedigo set out to make and record some songs that would, in their own way, honor and entertain his dad.
Over the course of the next year or so Pedigo’s father received treatment, seemed to be in remission, then got sick again, and ultimately succumbing to the cancer in May of 2017. So, if you, like many, thought 2017 sucked even more than 2016, John Pedigo probably has one up on you. And yet, despite the loss and despite the sadness, the debut self titled record is about being energized to face life’s occasional misery and maybe even standing upright with a wry smile after a blow to the gut.
“A lot of it was me in a room,” says Pedigo of the writing and recording for the album. “It was a real process. I hate to use the word cathartic, but it certainly was that to a certain degree.” After stewing over the initial tracks -- guitar, vocals and drums -- Pedigo called in some friends to zero in on the soul of the material and the album.
The record kicks off with the sound of a siren, and a little banjo to orient fans of Pedigo’s picking from the O’s. With a full-band sound, touches of honky-tonk piano, a string section in one spot, the sizzle of a gospel organ in another, a few festive brassy blasts of dixieland horns, driving drums, and lightly saturated electric guitar lurking underneath the acoustic playing that anchors the songs, Pedigo sings about people in peculiar binds. There’s a stand-up comic who comes home from a bleak string of one-nighters to find his girlfriend in bed with someone else on “The Comedian.” It’s dark humor. And on the catchy “Garage Sale,” the leftover scraps of a love gone south are sold out in the yard by “A long-lost fool without a single clue.” Before getting to the punchy Everly Brothers-ish chorus, Pedigo sings “I’m beginning to wonder where do I begin.” And “Warning Shot” is inspired in part by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It might sound morbid on paper, but Pedigo is all about embracing life, including the part of life that is dying. As he sings on “Orion,” the album opener, “Sometimes it’s right to say goodbye.”
Pedigo has said “Every year gets better.” That’s a motto he picked up from his wife and has internalized the message pretty thoroughly. On “Wet A Line,” a song about the importance of getting out and doing your own thing for yourself, Pedigo sings, “It’s no illusion, can’t you see, we all make our destiny.”
Pedigo’s destiny was making music. He got his first guitar in 5th grade, got ahold of cassettes of Guns N’ Roses and Metallica and went from there, listening to hard rock and then getting turned on to The Smiths and college rock of the era. Hearing the Pixies’ Bossa Nova album reoriented Pedigo’s songwriting efforts.
“When I heard that, I knew those were the kinds of songs I wanted to write,” he says, “with hard-hitting choruses coming out of the chaos.” And he’s written plenty of those himself.
Pedigo went through his grunge phase, his rockabilly phase, and his punk phase. After going to school at Emerson College in Boston, home of the Pixies, Pedigo returned home to Texas. He played in a handful of bands -- Slick 57, Boys Named Sue, Vandoliers, Party Police, Rose County Fair and others. Some of those outfits toured hard and played all over, bringing Pedigo to Australia, Europe and all around the U.S. One of his bands was an off-the-cuff country side project. Talking with Taylor Young, his bandmate with The O's, Pedigo half jokingly said he was going to get a banjo so they could make a duo that could tour easily and showcase their songs. That’s how the O’s, an energetic rootsy one-man-band-times-two, took shape. The O’s have played to audiences from 10 -- or less than 10 -- to 10,000, taking the stage at legendary venues like London’s Hammersmith Odeon and elsewhere. Part of that band’s ethos has always been to not do what couldn’t be done as a duo.
With Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner -- which is named after an infamously bad batch of homebrew that his dad concocted in the kitchen sink one year -- the scope is a little wider. Fans of the emotional and narrative heft of bands like the Hold Steady, Deer Tick and Dolorean will appreciate what Pedigo has pulled off here. Some might hear a connection to early Tom Petty, with a DNA-level kinship to the muscle and economy of classic rock but also a tender stoicism that’s sneakily rebellious. Others might detect a connection to acts like the Pogues, who can take a bone-deep bleakness and turn it into fist-pumping beer-hoisting anthems somehow.
For Pedigo, this album was a way to explore what-does-it-all-mean questions, to process the confounding feeling of a deep loss and a constitutional sense of optimism about life and the possibilities that come our way.
“I was really just trying to stay true,” he says.