WHAT SEPARATES William Helfrich—AKA mbilly—from the other quiet, self-effacing boys you know who write thoughtful songs and harbor a Sam Cooke obsession? For one, he has a voice that flexes and ripples like Jack LaLanne's pectorals—classic and classy, despite the nakedness. But more importantly, Helfrich has thought a lot about the values that drew him to his earliest loves: Uncle Tupelo, Townes Van Zandt, and Will Oldham. Along the way, Helfrich discovered something essential. Something nearly everyone else in the indie-folk trade has missed.
"What I heard in Van Zandt was an authenticity I hadn't heard before," Helfrich says. "That was when I was 16." In the meantime, Helfrich moved from Eastern Oregon to Portland, where he went to college and started playing the songs he had begun stockpiling in high school. After taking time out in the early '00s to raise twins, Helfrich returned to music with a broadened taste for styles like gospel and ambient. Mbilly's upcoming self-released debut, Mister Nobody Baby, assimilates his 15-year musical education into 11 tough tunes.
Helfrich continues, "It was later that I realized authenticity was a subjective thing." And an elusive quality, too. When Helfrich talks about No Depression, the indie-country sub-genre that borrowed its name from Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut, he sounds a little like an infidel, despite its obvious influence on him. It's as if the folding of No Depression's eponymous magazine in 2008 marked a fall from grace for hiss-laden twangy whispers.
Arguably, it has. In an ironic but completely predictable twist, no musical product of pre-millennial tension seems so tied to the blandness of that time than alt-country. Those perfectly imperfect Lucinda Williams albums? As of 2010, they smell of a pop-up Starbucks. This wrong will be righted, eventually. That's the nature of pop culture. But when the poisonous associations are shaken, it will be because of unsentimental singer/songwriters like Helfrich, who know authenticity is easy to sell but impossible to possess.