Calgary’s downtown cowboy

It’s ironic that the one photo that sums up the honky tonkin’ career of Tom Phillips and the Men of Constant Sorrow (MOCS) shows nary a whisper of the seven-member band. Taken backstage in Dauphin Manitoba a few years back it features two dressing-room doors side by side separated by inches. On the left is a star enclosing the words “Dwight Yoakam.” On the right another star enclosing yep Tom Phillips and the MOCS. That one shot sums up the thousands of gigs miles drinks joints lines dancers lovers laughs and tears alchemized in the band’s third studio album Downtown Cowboy .

If you’re thinking that three studio albums aren’t many for a band with 10 years of tales and history dragging from their spur straps you’re right. At least until you remember that since the last studio album in 2002 ( The Essential Tom Phillips and MOCS ) Phillips recorded a solo album ( High Flyer ) a soundtrack to a book ( Spanish Fly ) six tracks for a Hank Williams tribute album ( Sorrow Bound ) and a live album with MOCS ( King of the Broken Hearts ). He also starred in the musical play Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave which works out to at least one project per year.

While Downtown Cowboy is graced by the MOCS’s classic euphonic blend of liquid pedal steel and gourmet guitar it seems born more fully gestated than the band’s previous albums. Sitting in a house on Saddle and Sirloin the ranch development where he spent his childhood riding his appaloosa Freckles on an old stagecoach road Phillips explains why this album emerged fully dreamed rolled and smoked from his subconscious.

After friend Billy Cowsill died early in 2006 Phillips was inspired to focus on writing. He went upstairs in his southwest Calgary home looked out his window at the distant Bragg Creek weather rolling in and wrote. “I didn’t have anything else going on for four or five months so I thought I’m just going to get up every day and write songs” he says. “I thought I don’t really care if anybody hears them I just want to do it.”

The band had already decided to build a studio to record the outcome when a $10000 Rawlco Radio grant appeared like something right out of The Secret . Guitarist Dwight Thompson one of three original members still playing along (Phillips and pedal-steel enchanter Charlie Veilleux are the others) tracked down most of the equipment on EBay and assembled the studio in the carriage house behind his home.

When it’s pointed out that in the first half of the album there are six references to mirrors Phillips is surprised saying “it’s news to me.” Asked if the songs are reflecting him he says “That’s exactly what I was doing when I was writing those songs. I was taking the time to go screw everything I’m not writing them for any other reason than to get some part of me across. But all art is reflection isn’t it?”

It takes courage to write without self-censorship especially when your songs stalk heartbreak betrayal death drugs and disorder and feature lines like “We walked through fallen leaves/ Got too drunk on Christmas Eve/ Prayed our babies’ souls to keep/ Made sure our daddies’ graves were clean.”

“I wrote it when there was nobody and I don’t mean nobody else in the room I mean nobody else in the house” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily thinking about a record I was thinking about writing for the first time. It was a huge reflective time for me; I didn’t have any plan to get this out there in a certain amount of time. We didn’t even have a studio yet or the money to make an album so I think that was the way to fight [self-censorship].”

Downtown Cowboy is a songwriters’ album rife with tracks begging to be discovered and recorded in the manner that Phillips’s “Ribbons and Bows” was by New York songwriter Eric Bibb in 2004. Phillips agrees; he says he wrote a song like “Half a Mind” while imagining Merle Haggard singing it. One song towards the album’s finale seems to stop time with its take on the lives of the greats.

“‘Country Music Till I Die’ is a history of country music kind of. Somebody said that’s one they could play on the radio and I said ‘Do you know the drug references in that song?’” Phillips then smiles and adds “But it’s the truth about country music and it’s the truth about me. I want to do all those things country music guys do.”