By Mike Romero
Music has always been hard to quantify. And thanks to the internet, genres have become increasingly fluid and ephemeral. Because ideas can be transmitted instantaneously to anywhere in the world, even geography is no longer a clear indicator of how something is going to sound. We see this in Utah, where everything from metal to EDM to 80’s revival is released at an unprecedented rate.
Even so, local trends still develop. If I were to name one sound that’s unique to our region – a specific genre that Utah has pioneered – it’s the Dusty Deseret Sound.
This sound is named for the provisional state of Deseret settled by Mormon Pioneers and proposed in 1849. Deseret encompassed everything between the Tetons and the Eastern Sierras and from Mesa, AZ to Rexburg, ID. Wide swaths of desert, sprawling lakes, towering mountain ranges, snowstorms, Joshua trees, seagulls, crickets, a blazing sun, and SO much dirt and dust. These are just a few of the natural images Deseret inhabitants are familiar with.
The Dusty Deseret Sound is a unique blend of pop melodies over chugging guitars and a lilting folk rhythm section. Most musicians exhibiting this sound begin as college kids with only acoustic instruments at their disposal and roommates they don’t want to annoy (too much). To add depth to their acoustic performances, a lot of these college musicians form bands that start out as folk groups.
After getting a taste for big concerts and the energy required to put on a solid live performance, musicians following this trajectory usually adopt electric guitars and continue to play them like acoustics. Guitar textures are a blend of picked lead melodies, chugging clean tones with a touch of drive, and giant, sustained chords with warm grit and tremolo.
Drums continue to use brushes or mallets on more subdued numbers. When sticks are used, the drum production is typically punchy, natural, and muted.
Surrounding textures hearken back to folk roots: whether it’s the harmonica solo on John Allred’s “Sleep Safe,” the whistled hook of Michael Barrow & The Tourists’ “Tell Me How To Get To You,” or the abundant strings and mandolins on The Killers’ Pressure Machine (which was written in Park City about Nephi, UT).
Lyrics typically are front and center. This may be a branch of rock music, but the singer/songwriter element is rarely overshadowed. There’s a big difference between the way local songstress Mia Hicken approaches her solo project (which exhibits the Dusty Deseret Sound right down to lap steel guitar) versus her emo/pop/punk project Drusky.
How does Dusty Deseret differentiate itself from other western rock genres like Folk, Heartland Rock, or Americana?
Provo has a thriving, vibrant folk scene that also uses acoustic guitars and textures. But there’s a huge difference in the way The Backseat Lovers play with acoustic guitars in their early, Dusty Deseret song “Out of Tune” and the way local folk artist Quiet House plays on “Rolling Waters.” The National Parks are a great example of the difference between Provo folk and Dusty Deseret. If you want to feel the difference, listen to their debut LP Young and then listen to their recent LP Wildflower. Young is folk. Wildflower is Dusty Deseret.
As for comparisons to Heartland Rock and Americana: For one thing, a lot of this music is written by suburban kids – a lot of whom are transplants to Deseret and finding themselves adjacent to rural communities and national parks for the first time. These suburbanites bring their pop sensibilities with them (see “Could It Be Something?” by Lo Beeston and Cayson Renshaw).
And while lyrical content may draw upon nature as a source of imagery, the lyrics typically eschew references to the blue collar work life Heartland Rock loves to romanticize so much. Instead, songs draw on downtown romance, nightlife, and youthful dreams and regrets.
And then, of course, there’s the connection to Mormonism. While Dusty Deseret is not religious music and not every artist is, was, or ever will be a Latter-day Saint, a lot of the genre’s lyrics are shaped by contact with the faith or the unique culture of Utah and the surrounding areas. In this region, scriptural names and Latter-day Saint iconography run rampant: from Lehi and Kolob to honeybees and all seeing eyes.
Here are a few lyrical examples:
“I was born right here in Zion, God’s own son
His Holy Ghost stories and bloodshed never scared me none.”
– “West Hills” by The Killers
“Maybe if I dressed more modest?
Or if I still had my virginity?
Maybe I should lose the nose ring?
Or did my tattoos make you leave?”
– “The Reasons I’m Alone” by Mia Hicken
“Welcome to the land of milk and honey
I can’t buy bread with honest money
The wolves out in the street all say they love me
Like ushers in the land of milk and honey.”
– “Land of Milk and Honey” by Harpers
All of these unique elements have coagulated to form a group of slightly rustic-looking suburban songwriters who know more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than most of America, love the outdoors, and writing music that’s not quite rock and not quite folk but draws on both.
There’s a lot more that could be said about this developing genre, but at the end of the day, I think it’s best if you hear it for yourself. Lucky for you, we’ve compiled some of the best examples of Dusty Deseret into a handy Spotify playlist. Give it a spin and let us know what you think on Instagram.