Listening to the O'Kanes music is a lot like veering off a superhighway to explore some inviting side road that snakes its way through God's back yard. It carries you through breathtaking territory, and just when you expect to hit the main road again, the trail jags and leads instead to yet another eye-opening vista.
Through three albums and a handful of Top 10 singles, the Nashville-based duo has established itself as one of the most arresting new talents country music has produced in the '80s. The unrelated O'Kanes--Kieran Kane and Jamie O'Hara--carry on the tradition of the brothers Louvin and Everly via songs that defy convention at every corner and vocals that resurrect the much-neglected genre of two-part male harmonizing.
Their records--from their debut 1986 single, the sprightly "Oh Darlin,' " to their most recent, the devastating breakup tale "Tell Me I Was Dreaming"--feature a spare, mostly acoustic instrumental backing that spurns the superficial sheen and production weightiness other artists rely on to generate an illusion of substance.
While admirers marvel at their ability to churn out appealing, genuinely felt songs largely without resorting to such tried-and-true country-music topics as lyin', cheatin', drinkin' and killin'--often dispensing with such songwriting basics as rhyme--the O'Kanes shrug it all off with characteristic humility.
"I don't recall us ever sitting down and articulating that: 'Let's avoid all cliche and let's avoid all expected routes,' " O'Hara, 39, said by phone from his home in Nashville during a few days' break in their 40-date national tour with Emmylou Harris, which stops Saturday at Anaheim's Celebrity Theatre.
"But I think unconsciously, in both of our hearts, we want to try to stay away from cliche, to be as direct and simple and honest as we possibly can. In and of itself, that will direct you away from cliche," O'Hara said.
"It goes back to trying to write something honest and real," said Kane, 40. "When we are writing songs and get to that point--'Where do we go from here?'--we try to think about what would you actually say here? Forget about rhyme--try to use words you'd actually say.
"And we are usually able to craft it together that way. Most people don't notice (when lyrics) don't rhyme, if it rings true. It's fun to write like that. You're a lot freer to use language you may not be able to use otherwise, if you lock yourself into a rhyme scheme."
Case in point of how the duo peels back truths while skirting predictability is found in "This Ain't Love" off their latest album, "Imagine That."
\o7 I think about you night and day
I need you by my side
I'm lonely when you're not around
I'm hollowed out inside
But this ain't love"
\f7 "That cut may be one of my favorite O'Kanes records of all time," Kane said. "It's classic O'Kanes. . . . It started out unintentionally--we just had the guitar riff, then we began debunking all the myths (about love) in some way."
Added O'Hara: "As it was taking shape, it became apparent the song was going to debunk cliches about how we define love. The deeper we got into that idea, the more and more I liked the song. In the creative process of songwriting, in the beginning it's best to stay away from trying to decide what you are trying decide before you do it. Try your best to see where you are being led, rather than where you want (the song) to go. . . . A lot of people misunderstand that song and get really confused by it. It takes a particular type of mentality to get it, and I think the reason I love that song is exactly that, because those particular ideas run so deep in our culture. We are just bombarded by it."
If that sounds like a downcast view of love and romance, O'Hara doesn't intend it to be, and he resists the tag of "pessimistic country music" that one writer saddled them with. (The same writer, however, went on to say their music "nonetheless soothes and comforts the listener because it's so darn pretty and irresistible.")
"Hopefully the music is accurate; I don't know if it's pessimistic," O'Hara said. "To me, living is difficult for all of us. I don't think it's pessimistic to report on heartache. For myself, I know that I am comforted by a really accurate sad song, because it articulates for me the sadness that I feel. As a consequence I feel better. Sad songs make me feel good. . . .
"I think some of the O'Kanes' material is humorous, but I love songs like 'Together Again' and 'I Fall to Pieces.' When I hear that kind of stuff, it's where I gravitate; when I hear that kind of wrenching soulfulness, I feel like, 'Let's try to write that.' "
Kane once remarked that there is "a lonesomeness to me in the music, and even on the bright side there's underpinnings of sadness which goes back to the mountains, back to the Appalachians."
It's a comment that begs the question: What can a couple of Northern boys--one from Ohio, the other from New York--know about the sadness born of life in the Appalachians?