If Sam Cassidy got a haircut, he and Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation” could totally bro out. The cabinetmaking son of a tile-setter is quicker to offer up a whiskey than disclose the more personal details shrouded in his songs. The plaid-clad folk-rocker cringes at the word “lifestyle,” and he’ll be damned if he’d let a mechanic touch his car.
“Half of it’s just stubborn,” the songwriter says, sipping water from a Mason jar in the kitchen of his cozy northeast Minneapolis apartment. “If my car breaks I’m not going to pay somebody to fucking do it, because I could. It will take me two weeks but I did it, dammit.”
Cassidy’s blue-collar ethos courses through his debut album like motor oil. On last fall’s warmly twangy “Debts,” down but not out is a recurring theme — one the craftsman by trade and in song handles with gentle, calloused hands. The characters in the Springsteen-reared musician’s narratives are multidimensional, and foul deeds don’t necessarily reflect unredeemable souls.
The bouncy opener “Hallelujah” tells off an old know-it-all barfly, who returns to explain himself in the cagily rolling verses of “Reason to Stay,” while the title track follows a runaway who falls in with a “bad dude” and eventually pays for it.
“I feel more comfortable taking license that way,” Cassidy said of character writing. “When you write outside of yourself it’s easier to consider everything else.”
Cassidy’s plain-language tales are buttressed by two talented backing bands: his Coon Rapids High School buds in Red Daughters and a crew he calls the All Night Canyons, featuring Rob Skoro and all-star sideman Jeremy Hanson. Though the tracks on “Debts” are seamless, the sessions with the two bands were night and day. Red Daughters knocked out four songs (three of which made the cut) in one night, while the Canyons sessions were cobbled together as time and money allowed. “With those guys it’s a little more controlled,” Cassidy said of the Canyons. “With the Daughters, it’s almost going to go off the rails at any point.”
Fresh off a performance at First Avenue’s Best New Bands showcase, the 28-year-old is already working on an ambitious follow-up: a concept album based on a robbery gone wrong, with each song told from a different character’s viewpoint. While a handful are written and the rest are outlined, Cassidy — who’s inspired by Raymond Carver’s short stories — questions with an aw-shucks modesty whether he’ll be able to pull it off.
As I leave his place, Cassidy mentions he plans to catch up on the “Parks and Rec” series finale. I offer that I thought it was particularly well done. “The ending’s always the hardest part,” he opined.
Something tells us he won’t have that problem with his next chapters.