LACON — As a precocious young boy growing up in Marshall County, Craig Gerdes could close his eyes and picture the scene set by Kris Kristofferson’s country classic, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” It resembled much of the life he observed around him.
Once he began to write his own country songs, starting at the age of 10 or 11 and continuing on to the present day, he kept the imagery of that song in mind — observed, recognizable moments that were unafraid to recognize the struggles of life.
“That’s what makes country music to me,” Gerdes said. “It’s just about real life. It’s not necessarily happy or joyful times. There can be a lot of hard times.
“Not tailgates and bonfires and stuff like that. The struggle is what makes it country.”
Gerdes has called Pattonsburg home for most of his life, an unincorporated and distinctly rural portion of Marshall County a handful of miles east of Washburn. After spending a couple of years in Nashville sleeping on floors and shopping songs that he wrote, Gerdes returned to Pattonsburg a little disaffected but still inspired. The result is a new album out in February, titled “Smokin’ Drinkin’ & Gamblin’,” and a concert at Whiskerz Pub in Lacon on Dec. 23 alongside fellow outlaw country musician Dallas Moore.
The album’s stark title doesn’t explain exactly what Gerdes had in mind while writing it. Instead of evoking the hard-living man at the poker table, it’s actually about the music business from his point of view — the smoke and mirrors of the industry, the alcohol accompanying every function and his idea that there’s no bigger gamble than a music career.
The songs on “Smokin’ Drinkin’ & Gamblin’” often express a road-weariness about “ramblin’ life away” in Gerdes’ honky-tonk fashion. The details are almost surely derived from his time trekking to Nashville and then back to his wife and kids in Pattonsburg from 2011 to 2015. The seven-hour commute afforded Gerdes plenty of time to gin up characters and details for his songs, but it ultimately wore him down. By 2015, he had given up any pretense of a country career and settled back home permanently.
“I felt like I needed to go,” Gerdes said. “I needed to get out of there.”
But it wasn’t long until music drew him back in as he realized that the world was a lot bigger than just Nashville and that he should take his music to the people.
“I needed to take my music all over the country,” Gerdes said.
That’s been Gerdes’ itinerary ever since, hitting barrooms, small clubs and any other venue that will take him. He’ll drive himself to a place like Omaha on a Friday afternoon to play a few gigs that weekend, whether it’s for a hundred people or just three or four. What matters to Gerdes anymore isn’t the amount of people during the show but the ones that approach him afterward, who feel as if one of his songs perfectly described their life. Many have responded in a digital format to his song “That Little Girl,” about his daughter, which has almost 200,000 views on Facebook.
“It makes me feel like I’m making people’s lives better, if it’s just for four minutes,” Gerdes said. “To me, that is successful.”
A return to Nashville for his album release party on Feb. 14 is in the works, but Gerdes is more focused on the upcoming show Saturday in Lacon. He digs the Whiskerz venue and is excited to have his friend and collaborator Moore around his neck of the woods. He’ll show him around some places, including where much of his songwriting has taken place in his life.
“A lot of the songs that I wrote over a period of time was on that front porch in good ol’ Marshall County,” Gerdes said.