"Idlewheel” – it sounded like good road trip music, so I took the duo’s CD out on a drive through central Ohio the otherCraig Bickhardt and Jack Sundrud are Idlewheel day. Somewhere past Coshocton but miles before Mt. Vernon, I cued up the first track and settled into the sweet traveler’s groove that only the right merging of sound and landscape can provide.

A two-lane highway can unfold like a book of stories as the miles flash by. Idlewheel’s music has the same sense of discovery to it – carried along by its easy-flowing rhythms are flashes of personal revelation and homespun irony, speeding past you like an oddly familiar (or familiarly odd) small town.

Idlewheel CD

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Craig Bickhardt and Jack Sundrud do it all with a wry nonchalance that belies their uncommon craftsmanship – these guys know the high road of country-rock better than most. Their credits are solid and sterling – Bickhardt was a member of renowned Nashville group SKB, while Sundrud enjoyed success with Great Plains and (most recently) Poco. But really, Idlewheel isn’t a spin-off (no pun intended) of these bands. It’s more the product of afternoons spent swapping stories and woodshedding songs, of testing each other’s creative limits in defiance of Nashville’s prevailing conservatism.

The creative sparks that flew between Craig and Jack during their writing sessions glow brightly here. The two of them have a knack for unreeling vignettes and painting miniatures within a pop song structure, displaying a keen eye for the telling lyric detail. Tunes like “Sweet Sadness” and “When I Tell You I Love You” have the acute veracity of life lived, not imagined for radio consumption. Their collective viewpoint is tempered with a sharp edge – “Mona Lisa’s Frown,” for one, is surely one of the great put-down songs of our era. They combine intimacy and grandeur in “I’d Move Heaven and Earth.” And with “Invisible Hope,” they achieve a moral subtlety worthy of Sherwood Anderson or Raymond Carver.

These incisive lyrics are framed by a stripped-down production approach, rendered with snap and bite. The duo’s vocals have a rough-hewn, unvarnished quality, with Jack’s emotive higher-end tenor and Craig’s evocative lower-range vocals balancing nicely. The sound conjures up memories of the feisty, unfettered spirit of early Southern California country-rock, with a dash of the Everly Brothers thrown in.

As noted above, Idlewheel is perfect for a journey into the heartland. But you don’t need to hit the road to let their music take you places. This anthology of celebratory and bittersweet songs is all that’s required. ---- Barry Alfonso

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