The Class Conscious Honky-Tonk of Croy & the Boys
Corey Baum’s crew nails the zeitgeist of 2019 Austin
"The original album title I was stuck on for a long time was Art of Talking Shit," laughs Corey Baum as he slides a vinyl copy of the new Croy & the Boys LP across his kitchen table.
Howdy High-Rise, the local quartet's sophomore outing, isn't talking trash though. Instead, it lays bare a barrage of inconvenient truths readily recognizable to any Austinite: the increasing wealth gap within the city, gentrification, the criminalization of poverty. Behind indelible, unassuming melodies, Baum delivers social critiques with a warm smile and two-step rhythms like a honky-tonk Howard Zinn.
"That's more effective than an angry call-out, although to be honest, I am usually writing it from a place of anger," admits the songwriter. "But I'm just trying to be effective, and if I have goals for social change and class consciousness – which I do – then what's the most effective way to do that?"
Sitting in his East Austin house just off of Springdale Road, Baum's 18-month-old son Johnny wanders around the living room before his wife Amitiss sweeps in to take him for a walk around the 'hood. The home exudes the kind of comfortable chaos familiar to any working family with a toddler.
Baum's new domesticity at 34 years old also partly explains the evolution of his music from 2016 debut Hey Come Back. Whereas the inaugural Croy & the Boys effort reveled in a distinctly Austin slacker vibe ("Good Enough"), Howdy High-Rise considers the city skyline and neighborhood turnover and realizes "It Seems Like You Can't Just Be Poor Anymore."
"That class consciousness, that's what Americans struggle with," says Baum. "We're all embarrassed if we're not rich, when it's really like, man, we're not rich by design. People are making sure we're not, and there's no shame in that. We need to acknowledge that and address that."
Although Baum doesn't shy away from calling out the obscenities of wealth and privilege with a biting candor, he's most effective simply pulling back the curtain on the hypocrisies of a city like Austin that's torn between liberal ideals and rapid growth. Therein surfaces an orchestrated tension between the band's upbeat country stylings and the underlying boil of Baum's lyrics.
"I don't necessarily enjoy a lot of protest music," he admits. "It's not enjoyable to me when it takes that self-seriousness of singer-songwriter stuff and then adds even more crushing political elements. So part of it, I think, is just that I want to make music enjoyable.
"But also, too, I want to present these opinions as common sense, because I think they are common sense," he continues. "I don't need to beat you over the head with this because it's true and you already know it's true."
Leaving's the Last Thing
Although Baum's silky low croon pitches perfectly to trad C&W, it wasn't until moving to Austin a decade ago that he found his voice for it. Growing up in Bowling Green, Ohio, he played in the punk band Bullet Teeth – which helped launch Hovercraft Records – and studied ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State on a bass scholarship. First hearing Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson finally turned his ear to country, and eventually drew him to Austin.
"It was the first time I'd heard country music produced and arranged in a way that really spoke to me, just really raw and stripped down," says Baum. "I was already connecting the dots between punk, hip-hop, and folk, all this music with a very direct lyrical approach, so hearing the outlaw stuff was an epiphany. I'd been playing all this folky stuff, but I love electric instruments and the power of an electric guitar."
In Austin, Baum's voracious musical curiosity expanded into Tex-Mex and conjunto. Teaming with Amy Hawthorne, a scene veteran who played bass with Speedy Sparks and Koolerators, melded a Texas Tornados groove with the Cornell Hurd Band's wit in filling dance floors. Although their debut touched into Tex-Mex territory behind Adrian Quesada's production, Howdy High-Rise explicitly draws in Juanito Castillo and Esteban Jordan III for accordion, bajo sexto, and flute. It's a sound rising directly from the bandleader's familial surroundings.
"East Austin completely changed my life," he says. "This album would have never happened if I hadn't moved to East Austin. These sounds and the music, like conjunto or norteño, have totally changed how I think about music. And even just the lifestyle over here changed everything for me, and I champion the diversity and want to be around it."
"My suburban model growing up was you go inside and close the door and don't see anybody," he continues. "I'm a front porch guy. I don't want to hide in my backyard. So everything about living over here has helped guide me to become the person I am right now, especially as I settle down and get more domestic with my son."
As Baum's witnessed rapid gentrification across the Eastside over the past decade, the erosion of cultural diversity and established communities increasingly compels his songwriting.
"All this loss, all these communities that took 60-plus years to coalesce have been ripped apart for no reason, just so a few assholes can make some money," he says. "And it's been completely preventable. That's what makes it so sad.
"Everyone's going through it; it's happening in every single city," he notes. "A lot of times people will come up and say, 'Man, your songs really spoke to me,' and I just have to go: 'I'm sorry.'"