The Rear Defrosters’ “Gentleman Farmer” sounds like an old-time country hoedown, the sort of thing that Hank Williams might have written, or that Levon Helm might have goofed around with in the Woodstock barn. It’s not, but the similarity is no accident. The Rear Defrosters is a country covers band that plays Jimmie Rodgers and Dwight Yoakam tunes for beer-drinkers. It features an array of acclaimed southern Vermont players and associates honkytonking it up, including a ringer on guitar: the great songwriter and finger-picker Sam Moss, who I’ve written about before.
But leader Michael Roberts is primarily a songwriter, and a good one – I’ve written both about his band Wooden Dinosaur and his solo work before – so he challenged himself to write a few original songs they could slip into live sets so seamlessly the crowds wouldn’t notice. “It seemed like a good challenge to try and write songs that could fit alongside the canon of classic country music covers we usually play,” Roberts says.
Enter “Gentleman Farmer,” the title track of their debut EP (out in September). Roberts says 1950s Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens in particular inspired the upbeat hoedown. “He simultaneously satirizes his own life and draws pride from rural living in a way that fits all wrapped inside a catchy song,” Roberts says. “I like that he seemed to be writing songs for rural people, the kinds of people he grew up around. I aspire to do the same.”
If you didn’t know better, “Gentleman Farmer” could be one of those old Opry numbers. But Roberts says lines about horses in the stable and pork and beans derive from his personal life, not country-music tropes. It’s a gentle poke at wannabe-rural yuppies who try their hands at farming with little experience – like, he jokes, himself. As someone living on a small homestead with a handful of animals, he could be the target of lyrical barbs about people who have “got no discernible skills, but…like the way the sunshine feels.”
“I wanted to make fun of myself!” he says. “Compared to others around here, I’m an inexperienced and amateur farmer, and would have no idea how to actually make any money off of it, nor would I want to make it a full-time vocation.”
He cuts the self-deprecating humor with a genuine pride in his work though. “I also wanted to poke at the idea of what many of my urban friends… think it’s like to live in a rural area, or on a homestead like ours. Most people think we just hang out on the porch, drinking lemonade and playing banjo and life is just slow and laid back, but it’s actually a good deal of work when you’re trying to fit in raising meat and growing vegetables and fruits around a day job, a family, and other commitments.”