TORONTO - On the cover of his new album "Come Cry With Me," Canadian singer/songwriter Daniel Romano is pictured wearing an embroidered chocolate-coloured leisure suit — like something Nudie Cohn would have stitched together a half-century ago — with a pink button-down and matching neckerchief, a bold belt buckle and, of course, a tan cowboy hat.
Quite simply, it looks like something from another era, and trust that Romano — a 27-year-old carrying an earnest obsession for a bygone time in country and western music — would take that as a compliment.
Maybe he's a traditionalist or a revivalist. Certainly, he's an individualist. Yet by ignoring the current direction of both mainstream contemporary country and indie-inflected alt-country, Romano finds himself riding pretty much alone.
"Yeah, it's hard," he acknowledged in a recent interview in Toronto. "I'm not alternative country — I'm not really entirely sure what that is, but there's nothing alternative about (me).... It's definitely not new country, 'cause that's the worst.
"I'm doing straight country," he said. "There's nothing new about it. At all."
And yet, somehow, embracing the tradition of such country heroes as George Jones and Hank Williams seems practically rebellious in today's industry.
His expansive, dreamy new disc bears that out. Over steel-guitar streaked dusty-plain shuffles, Romano spins a series of yarns that are by turns sad or wry (the opening "Middle Child," a barfly's lament to the mother who abandoned him, is particularly heart-wrenching), but consistently steeped in the songwriting tradition of classic country.
"What I like about country music is: here's a story, here's exactly what happened. You can relate to it even if it's not what happened to you," said Romano, clad in an embroidered Western shirt and jeans.
He notes that one of the primary differences between the genre known as "alt-country" (encompassing the beloved likes of Wilco, for instance) and classic country is that the former usually features ambiguous lyrics.
"Not that there's anything wrong with poetic lyrics, it just doesn't make sense to do it in a genre that is rooted in storytelling," he said. "It's just storytelling and melodies and that's it."
Romano, born in Welland, Ont., grew up on the stuff. Sure, he rebelled for a period in his teens and embraced punk rock (which is "pretty much the same" as country, he notes, with its straightforward lyrical approach and simple chords). He later founded the indie-rock outfit Attack in Black and has frequently collaborated with City and Colour's Dallas Green and Julie Doiron.
Early on in his solo career he was uncomfortable performing alone, but he says he's warming to it. "Come Cry With Me" is his fourth solo record, and it's the most country yet. Where his earlier records had a certain lo-fi sound or belied his punk roots, Romano says he gradually gained the confidence to make the sort of straight-forward country he's always loved.
"I guess I eased into it because I wasn't sure how people were going to feel about any of it," he said. "But once I started to get the feeling that it was being appreciated, I felt like I could go further with it and for it not to be too shocking.
"It's what I always wanted to do."
But given his audaciously retro fashion and ripe age, he says it's common for audiences to see a degree of irony that simply isn't there.
"So many people do what I'm doing ironically. Openly ironically," he said. "I'm doing (this) because I love it. Simple as that. I love everything about it. Therefore, everything about it is important to be incorporated to me — and that involves every single aspect of the mannerisms, performance, production, just everything should be authentic because it's a timeless genre.
"Or it was."
He'll launch a supporting tour with roots-rock act Whitehorse (the husband-wife duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland) on Jan. 26, a two-month jaunt through largely soft-seat venues including Toronto's venerable Massey Hall on March 2.
Since Romano feels like something of an anomaly in the country business, it's not exactly easy to find like-minded touring mates. At best, he plays with bands that would likely be classified as "alt-country," who might share influences but not a sound.
Which leaves him introducing himself to audiences who might view his traditional country as a curious novelty or, worse, a twangy relic.
"That's definitely the case, (but) I always like a challenge," he said. "But anyone I've encountered like that, where musically it's not to my taste and not what I'd call country music, the people are always very kind and have nice things to say about what I'm doing. And they're also big listeners of classic country music.
"So I can't complain about that. That's good enough for me. I don't necessarily need to be part of a club. As long as there's some people who like it enough to care, you know?"