Wood River Valley-based guitar player Rico Hood has no idea why he plays cowboy music.
"I grew up in Texas and hated that shit," Hood said. "I grew up with the Descendents and Black Flag."
The hatred didn't wane in his 20s, either.
"I lived in Dallas forever, and it sucked because every band there wanted to be the Reverend Horton Heat," he said.
But country may have been in his blood. Hood said that faced with the choice of being either "an Elvis guy or a Beatles guy," his father went with Elvis and became a greaser. Before that, Wood's grandfather hosted a radio show in the 1920s, so Wood's childhood was packed full of all the mandolins, banjos and jugs you could shake a washboard at.
As Wood got a little older, moved to the Wood River Valley and settled down, he looked back on those youthful memories through a new lens and he realized it could be cool to be a little quieter, to tell stories.
That realization helped lead to the formation of Old Death Whisper, whose brand of country music is the rarest kind: the real shit.
Listen to Old Death Whisper's 2010 self-titled EP or 2012's Out of Range EP, and you'll hear Hood on guitar, laying down furious, shuffling rhythms as Chuy Hartman's banjo funks up the chords. Cole Wells and Wes Walsworth top it off with weepy slide lines and masterful henpecked riffs, while Drew Tomseth and Kent Mueller keep the train beats rolling long into the night. The entire band then takes turns mooning on about all things whisky, filling out the sound until it feels like an elemental howl bursting forth from the mouth of a coal mine.
Old Death Whisper's country sound comes from the no-rhinestone-shirts-allowed pre-1970s era, but the punk-rock 'tude and energy come straight out of 1977 with wild, howling choruses. In short, Old Death Whisper is what Roy Rogers would have sounded like if he'd grown up listening to punk rock.
Putting that vibe to the cowboy sound gives the band a cross-genre appeal that's rare in the increasingly stratified world of music. Hood feels that Old Death Whisper's live show appeals to anyone who likes American music--from Hank Williams to Iggy Pop.
"Obviously, we have the old cowboys that show up and we have the Nick Cave trenchcoats that show up and like to hang out, and that's cool, too," said Hood.
Jason "Train" Spicer, a manager at Whiskey Jacques in Ketchum, said the band's appeal is broad enough that it nearly sells the club out every time it plays, something he attributes to its dynamic sound and presence.
"They even do well with the tourists," Spicer said. "No one leaves."
A big part of that appeal is Old Death Whisper's no-BS approach to its craft. And nowhere was that more clear to Hood and Co. than on the band's recent tour of rockabilly-obsessed Belgium and Holland.
"We played a festival called Greaserfest, in--I forget the name of the town, I probably couldn't pronounce it anyway--and we were the least rockabilly of them all," said Hood. "We would notice the, I hate to call it lack of authenticity, but you could kind of tell that they were just grabbing these American icons like hot rods and cuffs on their jeans and we're just dudes from Idaho."
But even back at home, that authenticity helps. While roots and Americana music is regaining popularity across the country, its practicioners are largely an urban lot, more likely to pick a banjo on a Brooklyn street corner than in the mountains of Idaho. Old Death Whisper doesn't exactly live in the middle of nowhere, but to paraphrase Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impression on Saturday Night Live, they can see it from their house.
The remote nature of Old Death Whisper's home turf creates challenges. The band may have a substantial draw in Ketchum, but expanding the group's audience isn't simply a matter of driving to the next town. And when the band plays Boise several times a year--one of which is Friday, Jan. 18, at Neurolux--there's a good chance it will see some familiar faces in the crowd.
"It gets frustrating not being in a place where more shit is going on," Hood said. "But on a personal note, I'd rather be out here."
But with the isolation also comes the opportunity to have a larger hand in shaping regional culture.
For example, the band staged Occupy Hill City in August 2012, an overnight campout and concert in Hill City, which isn't much more than a general store and a saloon in Camas County. On a lark, Old Death Whisper corralled 200 people there for an all-night hootenanny.
"We were just trying to get people to the little towns in Idaho," said Hartman, one of ODW's founding members. "There's so much out there that's being missed."
"Everybody's asking when the next one is," Hood added.
Hood said the band likes those sorts of DIY events. And since Finn Riggins relocated to Boise from Hailey, that leaves Old Death Whisper as the Wood River Valley's most prominent band performing original music.
"There's not a lot of bands throwing out original music," said Hartman. "In the 25 years I've been here, I've never seen a band like us come up. There's a lot of old-timers who play their Neil Young tunes but not much original music. All five of us are songwriters, and we all take turns at the mic."
In 2013, Old Death Whisper hopes to record a new album, tour the South and use its music as the basis of a fly-fishing documentary.
"It will be like a road movie on the river," said Hood. "The fishing will just be some sort of parallel universe for when we're not getting drunk by the fire."
But more than any bullet-point goals for the new year, Old Death Whisper has one overriding perrogrative.
"I think we mostly feel responsible to ourselves to make good music," Hood said.