Jonny Corndawg sings in a tenor voice that manages to be both effeminate and masculine, and he writes about the struggling white-trash fringe in a way that suggests he's spent a lot of time drinking warm beer in Walmart parking lots. His new full-length Down on the Bikini Line reveals a songwriter with a heart as warm as that beer — if Corndawg's obvious affinities are with songwriters such as David Allan Coe, Billy Joe Shaver and Tom T. Hall, he often sounds like a redneck version of Michael Hurley.
That means you won't be surprised to hear Corndawg namecheck Shaver and Hall in "Night Rider," which is an empathetic but unsentimental song about truckers. Like the rest of Bikini Line, it proves that Corndawg is a natural humorist with an uncanny knack for making the clichés of old-time country music come alive. "Just recline your recliner / And steer with your knee," he sings. This is a man who thrives on junk food, strong black coffee and the thrill of seeing a roadside sign advertising laser hair removal.
With backing from such Nashville luminaries as Caitlin Rose and Ben Martin — not to mention guitar work courtesy of Deer Tick's John McCauley — Bikini Line sounds like Corndawg has assimilated schlock-country and remade it in his own image. The title track steals its melody from Don Schlitz's "The Gambler," although the lyrics aren't anything Kenny Rogers would sing in public: "Don't ever kiss below the belt / Before you make a slight connection / A small-talk conversation / Or a locking of the eyes."
That's to say that this is a genial, good-humored record that also happens to be filthy — although I bet Corndawg doesn't have a mean bone in his body. On a record of unforgettable songs, a standout is the amazing "Undercover Dad," which all parents of teenage children should attend to. Set to a wistful melody that's enhanced by Loney Hutchins' piano, it begins with Corndawg reading his daughter's diary. "Instructions on a hidden page / Tell about a teenage party game / That the kids call 'sleeping bag' / And apparently it's wild," he sings.
"Undercover Dad" is groundbreaking stuff, right down to the way Corndawg artfully expresses an eternal parental dilemma. Should he be a friend, or should he be a dad? In the end, of course, he decides to be both. Meanwhile, "Life of a Bear" and "Dog on a Chain" are the record's most Hurley-like moments — Corndawg manages to sound so crazy he comes across as sane, or the other way around. It's a rare talent.
What makes Bikini Line so reassuring isn't the music, which is just detritus cleaned up for a night out on the town. Corndawg's genius lies in his ability to celebrate a way of life you could call American without lapsing into irony. When he sings about how much fun it is to screen his calls with Caller ID and record his favorite TV episodes using the magic of the VCR (maybe he's figured out his DVR function — who knows?), you grin along with his obvious happiness.
Bikini Line is what country used to be in the era of Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, but it's also oddly reminiscent of the warm-hearted anarchy of Hurley and fellow folkies such as Peter Stampfel and his Holy Modal Rounders, minus the countercultural overtones. Corndawg knows from his gut just how difficult it is for a Chevy man to have a good time in a world full of Fords, and that's an insight we should be grateful for.