By Bobby Peacock
If you know Trout Fishing in America at all (bassist Keith Grimwood and guitarist Ezra Idlet, by the way), then it's probably for their children's songs. Stuff like "My Hair Had a Party Last Night," "When I Was a Dinosaur" (a Dr. Demento favorite), "Proper Cup of Coffee," or "18 Wheels on a Big Rig." (Did you know the latter two are covers?) I first discovered them at a concert in 1998 when I was only 11, then found a bunch of their albums at various local stores. Through these albums, I discovered their more serious, country-folk-rock side which I think deserves more attention. (Disclaimer: I couldn't find any of the songs off their first four albums, except for those reissued on The Dusty Dozen.) And given these guys are far lesser known than anyone else I've covered so far, I figured a top ten wasn't enough. So I present to you...
The Top 20 Trout Fishing in America songs (that aren't children’s songs)
(note: there are actually 21 - two #4's - but we're gonna let it ride)
20. "Just a Little While"
I still remember finding the album Over the Limit for a dime at an FYE that was closing out the last of their cassette tapes. This first track jumped out to me right away with its sheer positivity. "We live a little while, then everything must change / It might get better, it might get worse, it never stays the same / But right now, I'm having a good time" just looks so simple on paper, but they sell the hell out of it. And it's an easily accessible lead-in to stories about falling in love in a Pontiac and staying in rundown hotel rooms while working as a touring musician. Right now, I'm having a good time listening to this song.
As someone who grew up with a very detached view of fiction in general, I tended to be dismissive toward how "perfect" things can be in entertainment. Movies, books, and TV shows often seemed too idealistic for me to engage in them the way I should. Because just like Ezra asks in this song... who are these "perfect" people we see in fiction anyway? And what secrets do they hold, if any? I've asked these questions about every fictional being I've encountered, from cartoon imps to sitcom doctors to talking gryphons in fantasy novels. This song perfectly captures that mix of admiration, confusion, and curiosity that I have now that I've become slightly more accepting.
These guys love their lyrics about temptation. Would it be so bad if she were beautiful, nice, rich, and romantic? He admits fully that he's dreaming, but knows that "it would sure be great / To get what you ask for and not tempt fate." The invocations of Cleopatra, Mona Lisa, and Marilyn Monroe add a surprisingly worldly touch, and I especially like that he ultimately takes his time. But best of all is the sound design: a sort of reggae beat with wah-wah guitar and even a vibraphone, an arrangement they haven't used in any other song, complement Keith's measured vocal.
This one has aged well, what with its lyrics about high gas prices, debt, and political promises. (It was written in 2010.) But before you think it gets too heavy or preachy, we're also offered images of attempts at striking up conversation with a potential date or winning off a lottery ticket. It's easy to get cynical and jaded, to expect things won't change. After all, how many people actually do win the lottery? (Or even win on a game show, like I did?) And it's the second half of that phrase "I'm bettin' that it won't, but I'm hopin' that it will" that, like so many other Trout songs, keeps an air of positivity in any hard time. The peppy organ riff doesn't hurt, either.
The images are appropriately evocative: not just "quiet alleys," but also dusty stacks of items in the corners of a room and the beauty of nature. Those hit home to me as I look at the stacks of CDs and books gathering dust in my room because I'm lazy -- including a couple Trout Fishing in America albums I dusted off to write this. They also come to me whenever I look out my bedroom window and see the forest. Ezra's delivery is relaxing, and Keith switches to fiddle for a new sonic texture to the duo. But even in the calmness, there's still an air of tension; a "tangled knot that will never unwind." I find the overall approach oddly similar to my experience in video games: sometimes before tackling a tough boss, I just need to hit pause for a while and gather up the nerve.
15. "My Front Door"
There are a lot of songs about the joys of coming home from work, but few have been this quirky and joyous. In fact, I'd even say it's almost stream of consciousness, what with its oddball imagery of cardboard trees, macramé tattoos, and singing car keys. Normally I would consider this too abstract for my tastes, but here it adds flavor. And it's not like every line is silly; "When I'm backing out my driveway, I'm just taking the scenic route home" is a wonderfully positive spin on working man life. Add in Keith's upbeat delivery and the Mexicali-sounding production, and you have yet another example of Trout's uncommon approach to common, relatable themes.
Another song about the suddenness of love found and lost. Set to a breezy melody and plenty of steel, this one seems simple at first glance. They meet when he was hitchhiking, and then go out and look for turtles in a park before parting ways. But in between these vivid images, things get philosophical ("Halfway simple to be halfway a man / Half on purpose, the other half planned") before another friend takes the girl away. I don't know if any of this is true, but from how sharply it's written, I'd believe it. Plus, the metaphor of being hit by a truck is a striking (no pun intended) one that slots perfectly into the singable chorus. Much like that metaphor, this one hits when you least expect it.
I hadn't thought about Trout in a while when I found this song online. Turns out they haven't lost a step. Also, Ezra has learned to play the bouzouki. The lyrics are sharp and quirky as ever in their recollection of a lost love. We don't know much about her, but the emotion is palpable in lines like "When the choirs fall silent and the bells won't ring" and "Five o'clock the world was closed and it won't reopen soon." This was the first bit of new music I heard from them in years that wasn't a kids' song, and it felt like a grand reintroduction to everything I liked about Trout's more "adult" side in the first place. Indeed, they showed up at the strangest times.
As of this writing, I'm working four part-time jobs, living in a rundown house with a cat and no car. Is this what I had in mind after I won on Wheel of Fortune? No, but as this song says, "those great big dreams only get you so far" and "sometimes second is the best that we can do." That latter line is important, because of all the "second" choices the people in this song lean into -- second choice job, secondhand clothes, second childhood, and most importantly, not second-guessing. These guys were living on the streets when they first started making great music together, and 40+ years later, they're still making great music. Sure, they haven't charted or won a Grammy, but it's great music with a massive fanbase spanning all ages. And I'm a longtime fan, writing about them now in a house I didn't even have a decade ago. So as a matter of fact, for both Trout and for me, I think we're both doing just fine.
One of their rare cover songs; specifically, Oklahoma folk duo Barton & Sweeney. But it's got a mix of quirkiness and depth that fits like a glove. An encounter with a California earthquake, a Dust Bowl storm, an East Coast hurricane, and a Hawaiian volcano eruption send this hapless fool all over the country in hopes of finding a better life. Despite his tongue-in-cheek denial, it's clear that he does learn a lesson at the end: running away from problems isn't the answer, because you'll just find more problems. (Indeed, once he settles down, killer bees find him.) It's equal parts humorous character sketch and widely applicable life lesson.
10. "You Can't Get There from Here"
Another one that seems like it could have been a country radio hit. It almost feels like a predecessor to Brad Paisley's "Who Needs Pictures" by reminiscing about old photos (only in this case, they were actually developed). The lost love in those photos, the oldies on the radio, and every other memory of the past -- all of these can't be relived, no matter how hard you try. Subtle but effective lines like "Guess I was looking for something / Don't know what I expected to find" are matched perfectly to Keith's tender delivery and the gentle waltz. I hope other people discover this song for the first time in the same way I did, because that's one of the few places I can't get from here.
Old-school touring musicians no doubt have a ton of stories to tell about bad sets. Set to a hard-country waltz reminiscent of "Lucille," this song recounts a great deal of them in vivid detail. From playing on the streets, to a show where nobody came, to being paid not to play, to allergy-wracked voices (I can relate), it's all here. (I particularly love how Keith mimics the audience's jeering over the choruses. I heard them do this song during a live stream, and Ezra cracked up at that part.) This is a fun, self-deprecating look back at the hard times, and both of them perform it with a mix of nostalgia and dry humor. They remain as sharp as ever in 2022.
"Acting your age is getting harder and harder to do / When the age that you're feeling inside's more the size of your shoe." This song's images are quirky, amusing looks at people who aren't letting increasing age get in the way of their inner child: a man racing a grocery cart, a woman getting a tattoo, and an elderly couple dancing and flirting. There are times I feel I'm "too old" to do certain things. I feel too old to watch cartoons until I see a nursing home resident in a Beavis and Butt-Head shirt. I feel too old to rock out until I hear my stepdad blaring Metallica. And most importantly, I feel too old to have any sort of fun at all until Keith and Ezra come along with another winning tune full of charisma, wit, and truth.
Ever have one of those days so bad that you're driven to cry, but you end up laughing instead? That's what this one is all about. (Although I hope neither of them actually cut off their toes with a lawnmower.) Sometimes you just have to realize that if it weren't for the downs, the ups wouldn't be as rewarding. Keith has the right playful delivery for the truism "My life's been funny lately but it's not boring me to death." I also love how Ezra jumps in with a spoken interlude about a man whose life is perfect though he "never laughs." This was the first song I ever heard them do in concert, and it was a wonderful introduction.
This was the last song they played at the first concert I saw them at, and the last song on the first album of theirs I owned (Family Music Party). It's a tender promise of undying love with a beautiful production and calming vocal. I love how every declaration spans from silly ("If apples keep on falling / And three and two is five") to direct ("When couples fight their troubles it unites their hearts / When the good times roll, they can drift apart") to poetic ("When all this work is over and my ship comes sailing in"). Plus it's got a great hook in its fantastic chorus. I'll still be loving Trout, no matter what goes right.
Somehow I had skipped the Closer to the Truth album until now. This song is a very interesting balance between dreams and reality. It's got a very inspired metaphor of treehouses being built, but isn't so caught up in this flight of fancy to forget one highly important detail. "A labor of love can be the hardest labor." Even dreams have to be worked for if you want them to come true, after all. This song's spacious, jangly sound makes me think of childhood family trips to Texas, and the anticipation once we hit that first truck stop in Missouri after what felt like hours of forests and farms. It's that sense of joy and anticipation that, twenty-plus years later, still resonates with me.
This song was supposedly inspired by a painting. I've never seen the painting, but I can visualize the moody street corner with sidewalk artists, dark blue lighting, "marble stairs and red brick roads." Strangely, these images also evoke another moody slice of nostalgia. Around the time I discovered this song, I photographed a dead shopping mall: dark, dusty, full of abandoned 70's storefronts, "frozen in time" just like the cityscape mentioned (and when the "dead mall" scene was in its infancy!). I hear the ghostly guitar fills, the rumbling string bass, and the haunting harmonies. And whether I hear that song or see my own 20-year-old pictures, I can also "go back there anytime."
One of their few cover songs is also one of their strongest. This one comes to us from Susan Werner; Claire Lynch also did a version, but I think TFIA has the best take. One just does not expect men -- especially not hard-working rural Midwesterners with calloused hands -- to display any vulnerability. Some of them probably died with so much that societal expectations of men forced them to keep bottled up. And I think that's what makes this version have so much more impact: Ezra is able to convey that weathered vulnerability and play the role of a "barbed wire boy" who's still capable of pushing his "softer" side to the forefront when needed.
I've seen a lot of people come and go in my life: three of my grandparents, my father, several of my high school buddies, musicians I admired, you name it. It feels surreal that at age 35, I've already lost so many people who've shaped my life. Keith and Ezra are both twice my age, so I can only imagine they feel that sense of loss and loneliness even harder. Even the arrangement is starker than usual, consisting just of their weathered vocals and bouzouki. It's very similar thematically to "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)," but there's still a modicum of reassurance in lines like "I know it's not forever / It's not the end of the world." Songs about aging shouldn't hit me this hard, yet they still do.
This song was inspired by the two building a playplace for their children. While about childhood imagination, it ultimately takes a more mature perspective. The images start whimsical with toy helicopters and rope ladders, but take a more introspective bent at the bridge ("Childhood just becomes a box stored upon the closet shelves"). I think we never fully lose the joy, energy, and imagination of childhood, but far too many of us repress it. (Even I'm guilty. And I'm the same age as Ezra's daughter.) So here I have a bittersweet reminder of what was, and what still can be. Never stop growing, but never stop being a child.
This was the one that stopped me in my tracks. It's a slightly oddball look at an on-again, off-again relationship that's clearly burned this guy before. Every single line is on point: "Am I crazy or just crazy about her?," "She gets a chicken-fried smile on her face / And I'm just a big bowl of gravy dancing in her hand," etc. But best of all is the line that wowed me 20 years ago: "Do we learn from our mistakes? I surely hope not / Takes all the fun out of making them again." Who hasn't done something they know might have a negative outcome, just because they want to? Keith's voice is the perfect fit for this song's mix of quirkiness and introspection that wouldn't feel out of place on a Tyler Childers or Sturgill Simpson record. And I love where it just drops out to a lonesome steel guitar before coming back full force with one last chorus and Ezra's heavy strumming. This isn't just my favorite Trout song; it's one of my favorite songs, period.
Honorable mentions: "Two Brains," "Lucky Guy," "How Many Times a Fool," "The Day the Bass Players Took Over the World," "Knock Me Down," "Breakfast Blues"
If I included kids' songs, then "Mine!," "Pico de Gallo," "My Hair Had a Party Last Night," and "My Best Day" would be on here