The true essence of LittleHouse is best illustrated by the photographs on the front and back covers of "Carter Family Roots," the Simsbury band's self-explanatory new collection of songs.
On the front is a photo of A.P. Carter's house as it looked in 1893, a dilapidated cabin slumped precariously to one side. On the back is a photo of LittleHouse leader Joe Patrina's spacious Cape a century later, snow-covered and snug.
The implication, of course, is that these two things are somehow alike, or even that Patrina is a spiritual heir to the Carter Family's extensive musical legacy.
It would be a nifty bit of mythmaking if it weren't so preposterous.
There's no question Patrina, 58, has turned LittleHouse into a cottage industry, pardon the pun. He converted a barn on his property into a small concert venue, hired a band to back him when he plays in it and has paid to record and release two CDs of songs he's written. He has also self-published a book, "Songs: Where Do They Come From?" which explains his songwriting philosophy and collects the lyrics to 28 of his songs, filling a demand that may not exist.
In other words, it's a vanity project on a grand scale, funded by proceeds from the sale a few years ago of the software company he started in the '80s, and accompanied by press releases trumpeting his "grass-roots" aesthetic with every new musical gambit or charitable impulse. (They frequently seem to intersect.)
Patrina writes in "Songs: Where Do They Come From?" about a trip to the Carter Family Fold in Clinch Mountain, Va., where words of wisdom from Janette Carter made him eager to build upon her family's musical tradition with a style of his own that he calls "Heartland music."
There's just one problem: Patrina's not much of a songwriter. He's a capable musician fronting a versatile band, and he has a pleasant, gravelly baritone. As a lyricist, though, well, writing good lyrics is an art. The best lyricists, be they Bob Dylan or Jay-Z, are storytellers, masters of wordplay with a knack for vivid imagery, memorable turns of phrase and a near-magical ability to transform the mundane into something at once transcendent and relatable.
Patrina's lyrics, by contrast, are mostly just mundane. He often conflates plain-spoken into corn-pone on songs that fall back on hackneyed life lessons, relationship clichés and first-world problems. He leaves his new convertible out in the rain and buys stock during a downturn on "I Just Screwed Up," from LittleHouse's first record, "Old School"; and muses leadenly about emotion on "Only Humans Cry," an unreleased live staple as mawkish as it is mistaken.
The new CD, "Carter Family Roots," purports to celebrate a classic old-time sensibility on eight original songs and a cover of the Carters' take on the traditional "Three Little Strangers." The acoustic-based originals are sturdy enough, if unremarkable, bar-band fare, with chugging train rhythms, male-female vocal harmonies on opener "They Go Like This," a Tex-Mex feel on "Every Bit a Woman" and occasional flourishes on electric guitar, including twangy chicken-picking lead lines on "I've Been Waiting."
It's perhaps the most memorable part of an album that's less a contemporary homage to old-time music than a misinterpretation of its purpose and power. For that matter, using "grass roots" to describe a music fan's efforts to buy himself renown as songwriter is a misinterpretation of that notion, too. Either way, it takes more than vintage photographs and an open wallet to earn a place alongside the Carter Family.
LittleHouse performs for free Sunday at 9 a.m. at the Walk for Lupus Now at Blue Back Square in West Hartford, and at 2 p.m. at CT Summer Funfest (sponsored by FoxCT and The Courant) at the Connecticut Expo Center, 265 Reverend Moody Overpass, Hartford. Admission is $8 for adults, free for children 16 and younger.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun