For Michael Dean Damron’s band, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, the past is never passed. It is an encroaching darkness from which there’s no escape, and this feeling envelops Sonofabitch’s latest album Mayberry.
The album-opening title track is a harrowing return trip scored by squealing harmonicas and Southern rock rumble. “I saw my momma get beat again/ He put her head right through the door,” Damron sings. “So I shut down my heart and turned on my TV.”
The power of “Mayberry” is only heightened by its autobiographical nature. On the title track, Damron laments the violence, anger, and alcoholism he inherited from his father. “When he had moments of clarity and sobriety, he was maybe the most beautiful thing that walked on earth. He gave me a lot of my good views and core decency, but alcohol was a dominant daily occurrence, which ultimately won the day and my view of him and my worldview,” Damron says from his home in Portland. “But I’m a grown-ass man. I don’t blame him for shit. I just realize where I come from and that I’m not that.”
The road from “Mayberry” to its end-of-album reprise passes through the Celtic-tinged “Dead by Christmas Time,” the haunting existential rawk of “Bones,” and the folk-punk “Liars.” All in all, Mayberry is a hungry, questioning album filled with anger and sadness.
“I’ve watched The Andy Griffith Show a lot, and I enjoy what it represents and the nostalgia it brings. But it started in ’63 and the concept of that utopian fucking happiness and simplicity of life and Thoreau’s live-in-the-woods-and-be-a-good-dude. That’s gone and it’s never coming back,” he says.
One of the album’s other great songs is “From Bad to Worse,” which begins by suggesting you don’t give a zombie a gun without expecting something bad any more than you give a banker money, no strings attached. The track was initially inspired by the Newtown shootings and featured a verse blasting the NRA as children-killers before a bandmate convinced Damron to cut it.
“I guess it’s political, but I don’t hate guns and I don’t hate people who use them. I just hate how unregulated it is and how easy it is,” says Damron, who grew up around guns and even lost his brother to a household gun accident.
Indeed, the specter of loss shadows the entire disc. Mayberry is dedicated to Damron’s friend Roger Lee Patton, Jr., who passed away last year. “He died of a heroin overdose about three weeks before we were finished making this, and he was a fan, but he was more than that. He was a friend. He was one of those guys you just love to be around. You gravitated to him. He was just a great human being — articulate, young, beautiful,” Damron says. “It got him, you know. But anything can get you. Love can get you.”
Mayberry represents the band’s first effort together in seven years. Named after a line in the autobiography of bare knuckle boxer John L. Sullivan, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House broke up beneath a cloud of mutual recriminations in 2006 during the recording of their fourth album. Damron used some of the songs for his second solo album, Bad Days Ahead, but in 2010 they put the bad blood behind them to finish recording the once-abandoned disc, The Sounds of Dying.
“It was like, let’s get together and play a show and put out this record because it had ended on a bad note, the big ‘fuck you, no fuck you’ thing,'” he recalls. “We got together and started rehearsing, and it felt like we never quit playing together. It just clicked. We have good chemistry and everybody got excited and it snowballed into us being a part-time band again, which is awesome. I’d rather have a part-time band that was awesome than a full-time band that was mediocre.”
When not backed by his band, Damron works a lower key country-punk approach reminiscent of friends like Lucero’s Ben Nichols, Tim Berry of Avail, and the Truckers’ Patterson Hood. While louder and more rambunctious than Damron’s solo albums, Mayberry is the type of relatively spare effort that functions nearly as well without a backing band.
“It’s definitely written for acoustic guitar and can all be done [that way], maybe inadvertently. I don’t know that it was a conscious decision,” he says.
These days, Damron is perfectly fine with making room for his younger, noisier contemporaries. “I’m going to be 50 years old in December,” he says. “I’m not trying to raise any more roofs. The Guy Clarks, the Townes Van Zandts, and those songwriter cats turn me on way more than a bunch of amps.”
Then again, raising high-volume hell and telling the twangy truth aren’t that different to Damron. “I honestly see Hank Williams as just like Johnny Ramone,” he says. “It’s all the same thing.”