Skinny Dyck — Short songs, Thick Melodies, Tall Order: Alberta country artist’s ‘off-the-nose’ songs make an uncomfortable impact

Unlikely. That might be the best word to hang around the neck of Lethbridge’s Skinny Dyck, alter-ego to Coaldale-raised musician Ryan Dyck. Unlikely because rare are the times you discover a singer-songwriter whose main instrument is pedal steel (although he does reference Ralph Mooney and Buddy “Evans” Emmons). Unlikely because Dyck generally considers himself a sideman, like drumming (“Drums were the hand I got dealt in Jr. High band”) in metal band Tyrants of Chaos, including playing a monster truck rally. 

Unlikely because in 2020, Skinny Dyck released Get to Know Lonesome, a 10-song album that clocks in at under 28 minutes, including Dreamin’ which is heading towards two million streams.

It’s a holy-fucking-riff song, but no one-trick-pony. Descending in waterfall pools, Dreamin’ mirrors transparent lyrics floating down eddies of existential embraces: “I’m dreamin’, dreamin’ away the time/I’ve got ideas and when they grab a hold of me, I can’t settle down.” It’s a timeless song that demands a place in movies, deserves to dominate a.m. radio until you cry uncle (but you won’t, not from this song), and to be a soundtrack for your memories to come.

As to why it earned so many plays, Dyck is stoic. “It’s a good song for farming or drinking. Guess you get lucky sometimes.”

But there’s a little more background than that. “That song was an older song that I had never recorded before,” Dyck says from his south Lethbridge basement. “It was the treatment that made it come to life. I wrote that little descending line, and my friend Evan Uschenko executed it and the other instrumentation in his beautiful way with his idiosyncrasies and whatever. It’s got its own thing, eh? It’s a bit of an outlier on the album …”

It might be an outlier but it doesn’t stray; it keeps an ear on the other tracks which are masterpieces of melody, brevity and brutal candour. Like Running Kind (“Every front door found me hopin’ I would find the back door open/There just had to be an exit for the runnin’ kind”) or the title track (“ ’Cause one more little teardrop’s not gonna kill you … falling facedown on the bar floor could be a good move/You’ll need to part with any pride you ever had”).

While Dyck’s love of the classically melodic approach of influences George Jones or Jerry Lee Lewis shines here, there’s more than meets the ear. “It might be a little testament to where my head’s going these days. It’s still in country music but I’m very much marrying atypical elements in songs, whether it’s just little things like phrases that make you do a double take or forms that keep you guessing.

“I mean, I like the country music and I think (this is) neo-traditional, you could say, but I like to keep one foot a little bit out, at least. Nothing too on-the-nose, if you know what I mean.”

It all gives rise to alluring moments like The River Remembers: “I remember where we used to go, where you’d tell me not to get too close.” It’s the kind of song you instantly think you’ve heard before, you’ve dreamed before, you’ve lived before, all in under three minutes.

That concise writing is the album’s watermark. “It comes straight from my interest in ’60s country music and pop music at that time too, where everything was two minutes for the radio, you know?

“I still am always looking to redact … I always have a mind for austerity: ‘That’s all I’ve got to say and I’m not going to attempt to do any more.’ ”

That austerity was echoed in the recording process, with just Dyck, Uschenko and a Tascam eight-track recorder hanging out together in the living room. “The tape machine was a cool part of it … I think of limitations in the recording process not as obstacles but as opportunities, because it’s so easy to obsess and go back and forth (in digital recording). And of course, the analogue approach makes it more difficult to do that.

“There’s that and the sound itself; that particular machine has a well-documented sound. And with typically analogue recording processes you lose a little bit of the sheen — it takes a bit of the shimmer away.”

All of which melds with “off-the-nose” as opposed to on-the nose writing to create a blend Dyck brewed but doesn’t want to bag up and label. “It’s been discussed in my own circle, maybe others, and it’s ‘loser country,’ and I don’t know how much I love that. Firstly, it comes from the songs. A lot of times I’m writing about my personal experience. It’s easy to write about your relationship struggles, and you’ve got to keep the emotions hydrated so that’s often the source for the songwriting, but not always. I really try to make sure I don’t want to just live in that world.

“Again, nothing too on-the-nose. I want to make things just a little bit uncomfortable, and maybe that’s a subtle thing … That’s kind of my ethos.”

Skinny Dyck plays The Palomino Nov. 12.