OHIO JOE BLENDS BLUES, COUNTRY, and the bittersweet
The “psychedelic garage country” of “Ohio Joe” Tokarsky evokes sepia-toned images of some tired old party sitting in a dusty honkytonk in Ames, Iowa, or Bell Buckle, Tennessee, sipping a whiskey neat and thinking about all in life he’s lost.
Tokarsky, 31, doesn’t mind if his lo-fi country blues stylings — influenced by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, among others — makes listeners want to reflect on such tear-wringing topics as loneliness, doomed relationships and, in the case of his song “Drinkin’ With a Killer,” unknowingly sharing spirits with a gunpowder-stinking wife-murderer.
The Gambier native describes himself as a modern version of the archetypal forlorn singing cowboy. “I’ve always felt that lonesome, melancholy feeling, and related that to the music I listened to and what I like to play now,” says Tokarsky, who these days can be seen in the Akron/Canton and Kent areas, wearing an oversized trucker’s cap on stage alongside a band called The Continental Drifters.
As he has for most of his career, Tokarsky is on vocals and plays guitar for the group. His music has a stripped-down quality, one partially inspired by the “Bakersfield sound” developed in California in the ’50s as an antidote to the slickly produced, string orchestra-backed country tunes of the era. It’s also comparable to the work of late singer/songwriter Gram Parsons, who blended blues, folk and rock to create what he called “Cosmic American Music.”
West Coast-area bands like Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Brothers further inform the laid-back, electrified sound Tokarsky currently employs. It wasn’t always this way. In Olympia, Wash., where Tokarsky from 2005 to 2009, he was primarily playing acoustic guitar amid an atmosphere heavy on bluegrass and jazz, with grunge still hanging on by a frayed flannel thread.
Tokarsky switched on the amp once he returned to Northeast Ohio, in deference to the rock scene here. “I figured I needed to adjust,” said the Kent resident. “It’s fun to rock out a little bit.”
Along with playing shows, Tokarsky is working on his first album with The Continental Drifters, with most of the work being done on digital four-track in various band members’ homes. (Tokarsky also makes an appearance as Ohio Joe on Buzzbin Magazine’s One Man Band Death Match CD collection of local musicians.)
“It’s a very lo-fi, do-it-yourself kind of project,” he said. “We have good chemistry.”
Tokarsky started playing guitar at age 10, mostly standard rock fare like Aerosmith. A visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum had an impact on his budding interest in the guitar, with Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi hammering the point home with killer solos on albums like “Led Zeppelin III” and “Paranoid,” respectively.
Exposure to Hank Williams and other “daytime-sitting-in-a-bar, jukebox-type stuff” got Tokarsky into country, an interest that remained dormant until college when he saw an infomercial for some old-time acts. Playing country with a sprinkling of ’60s experimental psychedelia mixed in seemed the way to go.
Tokarsky will continue to play “fueled by visions of poor souls,” as he writes on the industry website Reverb Nation. Maybe he’ll give a special nod to the long-faced fellow slumped at the end of the bar, the guy who likes a little melancholy music to go along with a nice, stiff drink.
“I like to play to people like that,” said Tokarsky. “Old-timers just drinking a beer and thinking.” Check out Ohio Joe’s show on June 16th at the Stone Tavern.