By Jim Schutze
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These are the questions of our time: Should Pete Rose be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Who, in fact, did let the dogs out? Was the Gilded Age really gilded—or even a real age, for that matter? What's the true definition of folk music?
A.A. Bondy might not have answers for those first three queries, but, after some contemplation, the troubadour carefully talks himself through an answer to the last one.
"I think I know what 'folk' means when it's used as a tag or as a way to describe a whole type of music," the singer says. "It could be anything between Leadbelly and Wilco or Neil Young. Words change meaning over time. Folk definitely meant something else before. Then, it meant not being plugged-in, and plenty of storytelling. I definitely did that with the first record [2007's American Hearts], and that's why the folk tag was applied."
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But Bondy is careful to use the term himself: "People ask me what I think I sound like. And if I say what I think it is, then I limit myself."
Whether he likes it, though, Bondy, who spent his formative years in Alabama where he fronted alt-rock band Verbena and who has since produced two solid and very different albums as a solo performer, remains in the folk bin—even with added electric instrumentation on last year's elegiac When the Devil's Loose.
Or does he?
"I've seen it (the latest album) listed under adult contemporary and even oldies," says Bondy as he prepares for his tour's upcoming swing through Texas. "I've also seen it listed under folk and rock and indie. What does that say? It says it's nothing, really."
As it turns out, genre labels of any kind serve little purpose for Bondy, especially when it comes to his personal music collection.
"I don't go into my iTunes and list everything under specific titles like 'Bollywood Movie Soundtrack' or 'New York Jazz from the Mid-'50s,'" he says. "I just don't look at music that way. It all runs together, as far as I'm concerned."
Regardless of what anyone, himself included, decides his music should be called, Bondy was drawn to the more organic sounds of indie folk, and he knew when it was time to make a change from the decidedly rock vibe he had been proffering for some time, when he went from being a member of a band to a solo musical free agent.
"I had known for a while that I wanted to do something else," Bondy explains as he illuminates his thought process leading up to his first band's dissolution. "I just wasn't happy doing what I was doing. I was like anyone else with a choice. Work is work, but you should feel like you're getting something from it, whether you're learning, gaining some ground or even enjoying yourself. It was a job that I just needed to quit."
But, Bondy insists, even though he still considers his solo musical output a job, he's closer to contentment these days.
"Whether you're making songs, cutting grass or pouring a drink, there's a way to do the job so that you'll feel right," he explains. "Not good, necessarily—but there will be a sense that it's finished."
When the Devil's Loose was released a year ago, at which point it was greeted with wide critical acclaim. For Bondy, the beefed-up instrumentation was a purposeful and concerted reimagining of what he feels is a sound that's as lost as it is possibly mythical.
"There are a lot of classic American song styles on the record," Bondy says. "It really is, for the most part, my interpretation of what the radio sounded like in the 1950s and '60s, in a weird way. It's like a Hollywood set of what New York City is supposed to look like, but it really doesn't look like NYC at all. It's a weird facsimile of the radio from before my youth."
For Bondy, perhaps the work of recreating the sounds he hears in his imagination will never be completely finished—whether the sounds are folk or otherwise.
But, hey, we've all got to work.