Tag Archives: Honky Tonk

David Ball: Thinkin’ Problem

Expanded 25th anniversary reissue of 1994 honky-tonk landmark

Having gained artistic and fan notoriety in Austin’s Uncle Walt’s Band, David Ball spent more than a decade searching for commercial success in Nashville. He recorded an album for RCA in 1988, but after the initial singles had only middling chart success, the album was vaulted until this 1994 Warner Brothers release broke nationally. The sessions offered uncompromising neotraditional country, just as the neotraditional movement was giving way to crossover sounds; but fans apparently hadn’t gotten the marketing memo, as the  album launched five country chart singles and sold double platinum. At the age of 41, Ball’s maturity – both musically and experientially – shows in music that’s rife with broken hearts that won’t stop loving, bittersweet memories that continue to surface, and emotional bruises salved with an alcohol liniment.

Produced by Blake Chancey and engineered by the legendary Billy Sherrill, the album is backed studio players who came together into a tight, twangy honky-tonk band of fiddle, steel, piano, drums and generous amounts of Telecaster. Ball’s voice was recorded without the sort of mid-90s studio effects that polished and pumped singers for radio, and it leaves his emotional connection to the lyrics exposed for everyone to hear. The record doesn’t sound anachronistic (even for its own time), but the throwback connections from Ball’s earlier work with Uncle Walt’s Band are clear. The album’s lone cover is a devastating take on Webb Pierce’s “A Walk on the Wild Side of Life,” opening with a haunted acapella intro that leaves the protagonist to forever stalk an empty house. Ball’s original material — reportedly winnowed down from a hundred songs over two years to the ten included on the original album – is superb.

The uptempo title track provided the first of five singles to make the country chart, falling just shy of the top at #2. The other four include the mid-tempo honky-tonk of “Look What Followed Me Home” and “Honky Tonk Healin’,” the slow, bluesy “What Do You Want With His Love,” and the pained ballad “When the Thought of You Catches Up to Me.” The album tracks are just as good, including the rockabilly-tinged “Down at the Bottom of a Broken Heart” and the Tex-Mex flavors of “Don’t Think Twice” that evoke Buck Owens, Doug Sahm, and the Mavericks.

Omnivore’s anniversary reissue adds eight demos that show just how hard the choice of ten album tracks must have been. Ball’s liner notes suggest “I’ve Got a Heart With Your Name On It” as George Strait-styled material, but the simply arranged demo and Ball’s heart-on-sleeve vocal are more in line with Nick Lowe’s post-Jesus of Pop singer-songwriter works. The old-timey “Goodbye Heartache, Hello Honky Tonk” and “The King of Jackson Mississippi” reach back to Uncle Walt’s Band more directly than the tracks that made the album, and “Give Me Back My Heart” has some incredibly fine, and surprisingly extensive guitar picking, for a demo. The original album’s appeal has proven timeless in its emotion and artistry, and augmented by period demos, this reissue is a must-have upgrade for fans. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

David Ball’s Home Page

Chuck Mead: Close to Home

BR-549 singer-guitarist celebrates his roots in country and rock ‘n’ roll

With BR-549 on hiatus, Chuck Mead’s managed to keep himself quite busy. In addition to three solo albums, he’s provided musical direction for the stage hit Million Dollar Quartet and the CMT dramatic series Sun Records. The latter afforded the Kansas-native Nashville immigrant time in Memphis, which led to his recording this fourth solo album at Phillips Recording, the studio Sam Phillips built to replace the original Sun studio. Mead expands on the neo-traditional roots of BR-549 with a retro palette that takes in the tall historical tales of Johnny Horton, the honky-tonk pain of Hank Williams, the rock ‘n’ roll joy of Chuck Berry, and even late-50s ska. He extols the wonders of lifelong musical preoccupation in “The Man Who Shook the World,” and Rick Steff’s piano adds a strong Johnnie Johnson vibe to “Daddy Worked the Pole.” There’s Hank-styled melancholy in the resonator guitar and yodel of “Better Than I Was (When I Wasn’t So Good),” and the bar-themed “Tap Into Your Misery” is a drowning pool of sorrow. The album’s Memphis locale raises its swampy groove with the guitar reverb and organ of “Shake,” and the wide-ranging set closes with the optimistic of “There’s Love Where I Come From.” Mead’s a chameleon as he bounds across a wide range of musical touchstones, but his fluency turns these echoes into flavors, and the album into a celebration of roots. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Chuck Mead’s Home Page

Blue Yonder: Rough and Ready Heart

Country, swing and honky-tonk from talented West Virginia trio

This West Virginia trio – singer/songwriter John Lilly, guitarist Robert Shafer and acoustic bassist Will Carter – make country music from another era. There are Western tones that suggest the Sons of the Pioneers, but Lilly and Carter’s harmonies are bluegrass brotherly, and Shafer’s picking ranges through swing, rockabilly, bluegrass and folk. Add in the playing of guests Russ Hicks on steel guitar and Tony Creasman on drums, and the group covers a lot of range with their original material. The album opens with Lilly on the side of the road, thumb out and wanderlust intact. His travel turns emotional, as he contemplates the scars that have toughened him and the memories that bind him steadfastly to the past. “Rough and Ready Heart” suggests he’s ready to soldier on, but his attachment to the past puts tomorrow on hold for “Lost in Yesterday.” It’s not until “Emerald Eyes” that Lilly finds his way back to the present, and with the clever barroom lesson of “You Can’t Get There From Here” he spies the exit. The album closes with the upbeat rockabilly “Green Light,” the rhythm section stoking the beat as Shafer shows off his flatpicking prowess. Sharp songwriting and instrumental virtuosity has made Blue Yonder a weekly favorite at the Bluegrass Kitchen, and their latest album brings it home. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Blue Yonder’s Home Page

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s: Born, Raised & LIVE From Flint

WhiteyMorganAndThe78s_BornRaisedAndLiveInFlintOld-school outlaw honky-tonk, live from Flint, MI

Though the 78’s lineup has revolved a few times since the group took their name in 2007, singer, songwriter and guitarist Whitey Morgan (nee Eric Allen) has proven himself a consistent leader across the group’s recordings and live performances. Their latest release snapshots the band in 2011, laying down hardcore honky-tonk in Morgan’s home town of Flint, and sounding like Waylon (and the Waylors) on a good night. Flint may be physically closer to Saginaw than Nashville, but its rust-belt living lends a lot of grit to the band’s music. Morgan performs with a swagger that resonates with a crowd ready to celebrate hard-drinking tunes like “Turn Up the Bottle,” “Another Round” and the ironically titled “I’m Not Drunk.”

Morgan touches on several of country’s favorite topics – women, drinking, cheating, and how women and cheating lead to drinking – and shows why they’re perennials. He’s fatalistically accepting of both cheating and drinking on the two-stepping “Cheatin’ Again,” but lets his loneliness drive as he seeks another chance with “Prove it All to You.” The band’s low-key take on Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” is surprisingly effective, as are covers of Johnny Paycheck’s cautionary “(Stay Away From) The Cocaine Train” and Dale Watson’s Billy Joe Shaver tribute, “Where Do You Want It?” The 78’s are a tight unit, with Brett Robinson’s steel and Mike Lynch’s piano really standing out. If you can’t catch the band live, make sure to play this loud at your next party. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Whitey Morgan’s Home Page

Laura Benitez and the Heartache: Heartless Woman

LauraBenitez_HeartlessWomanTwangy, throwback country meets modern-day relationships

California singer-songwriter Laura Benitez may profess a disinterest in “recreating the past in a recording or at a show,” but her steel-infused second album has a lot more in common with country music of the decades before her birth than the note-perfect arena-ready crossover productions of modern Nashville. Much like Dee Lannon, another country singer bred of the San Francisco Bay Area, Benitez sings rock ‘n’ roll-tinged honky-tonk with a lyrical outspokenness that carries on the works Kitty, Tammy, Dolly and Loretta. Together with her road band, the Heartache, Benitez has laid down a set that sports the give-and-take of live performance, rather than the metronomic perfection of endless studio retakes.

The album’s opening kiss-off, “Good Love,” forges self-appreciation out of romantic ashes, echoing the personal discovery and emotional strength found in the great run of hits by Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina and other female country singers of the 1990s. Benitez isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants in “Take Me Off the Shelf,” nor does she shy away from the other woman’s truth of “I Know You’re Bad” or the poison of “This Empty Bottle.” When it’s time to hit the road, Benitez doesn’t hesitate, though the rebuke of “Imitation of You” is tangled with recrimination, and the wishes of “Heartless Woman” are perhaps only half-hearted.

The band’s rhythm section is solid but restrained, and the harmony vocals – many provided by Benitez herself – add flavor without compromising the leads. Ian Taylor Sutton’s steel guitar favors Don Helms’ classic work on “Where You Gonna Be Tonight,” and Benitez’s forlorn vocal suggests Linda and Emmylou. The album closes with a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down” whose 2/4 beat and electric guitar shift the lyrics from remorse to self-anger. Benitez isn’t one to sit around and mope, so even her most troubled songs have an upbeat feel, ala the Derailers or Buck Owens. And like the Derailers, classic country twang provides a jumping off point for Benitez and the Heartache, rendering their music fresh, but anchored in an era before ProTools, auto-tune and crossover striving. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Laura Benitez and the Heartache’s Home Page

The Howlin’ Brothers: Trouble

HowlinBrothers_TroubleNostalgic bluegrass, folk and blues with a shot of modern vitality

The Howlin’ Brothers continue to combine a formidable collection of Americana sounds, including country, folk, blues, bluegrass, gospel and Dixieland, with the moxie of street performance. Their latest works even harder to stop passerby in their tracks with banjo country, harmonica-and-slide blues, weeping fiddle tunes, steel-guitar waltzes, Cajun dance numbers and vocals that invite the audience to sing along. Their playing exhibits the best of two worlds, combining the energy of extemporaneous expression with the finesse of experience. It’s as if they captured the essence of a Saturday night stage and an impromptu Tuesday-afternoon street corner in a studio recording. The track list also plays to the feel of a live set, with carefree numbers, rough plaints and sad tales taking listeners on a roller coaster of emotions. One can easily imagine this entire disc played on stage as-is, returning dancers from the whirl of “Monroe” to shed a few dizzy tears to the heartbroken “World Spinning Round.” The trio’s range is impressive, including upbeat bluegrass, spare folk and steel honky-tonk in a truly coherent mix; it’s like listening to a day of Strictly Hardly Bluegrass in one band; even the reggae “Love” somehow fits easily into their set. Most impressively, the group instills new energy into classic roots forms, keeping this from turning into a nostalgia fest or even an exercise in progressive twists; it’s just inspiring and fun. A lot of fun. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Howlin’ Brothers Home Page

Moot Davis: Goin’ in Hot

MootDavis_GoinInHotFine Nashville twang born of a broken heart

Davis’ fourth album, his second in partnership with producer Kenny Vaughan, expands upon the Nashville twang of 2012’s Man About Town. The influences are similar – Dwight Yoakam, Big Sandy and Raul Malo – but there’s also a helping of the Derailers’ Bakersfield hybrid and NRBQ’s irreverence. Guitarist Bill Corvino and steel player Gary Morse add plenty of twang to Davis’ songs of marginal finances, slender experience, waning sobriety and wounded hearts. Especially wounded hearts, as Davis wrote the album in the aftermath of an emotional breakup that brought forth tears, regrets and painful reminders. He croons with Nikki Lane on “Hurtin’ for Real” and struggles with the painful aftermath of “Love Hangover” and unfulfillable desires of “Wanna Go Back.” The band, which also includes bassist Michael Massimino and drummer Joey Mekler, moves easily between mid-tempo blues, country two-steps and second line shuffles, and really tears it up for the roadhouse rock of “Midnight Train” and “Ragman’s Roll.” Their flexibility recalls Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen, and is a perfect match for Davis’ broadened songwriting. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Moot Davis’ Home Page

Nudie: Remember This

Nudie_RememberThisTwangy country music from an unlikely island

The artist known as Nudie is a bit of a mystery. His bio admits to an Ontario birth, residencies in Quebec, Arizona, Texas and New York, and settlement on Prince Edward Island, off the east coast of New Brunswick. He developed a following busking, playing clubs and touring with his band the Turks (completing his homage to country music’s famed haberdashers, Nudie Cohn and Nathan Turk), but after a pair of albums, he’s moved on to a solo career. Nudie’s debut shows many of the same country influences as his earlier work (and includes vocal and instrumental work from two of his three former bandmates), but the arrangements stretch a bit further. Gone is Gordie MacKeeman’s fiddle and mandolin, but added are organ, piano and percussion; also added is a more relaxed vocal style that grabs your attention with understated confidence rather than stage-ready showmanship.

None of which is meant to suggest that Nudie’s twelve new originals wouldn’t play well on stage, but that many will have you listening intently before singing along. Then again, the upbeat Bakersfield-styled “Why Do We Keep Hanging On?” will grab you right away, as will the Neil Diamond-cool of “My Sweet Ache. There’s steel guitar and tic-tac guitar on “You Try to Be Right” and the yodel that opens “Fiona” signals Hank Williams-styled woe ahead. Nudie writes in the many shades of anguish that anticipate and result from broken hearts. He’s on the lookout for cracks in his relationships and laments those that have already failed. Even in the depths of his misery, Nudie brings the wry storytelling of Tom T. Hall to several songs, including “Pawn Shop” and “I’m Tired of Living with No Fun.” Think of this as buenas noches from an unlikely place. [©2014 Hyperbolium] [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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David Serby: David Serby and the Latest Scam

DavidSerby_AndTheLatestScamL.A. honky-tonker goes power-pop

David Serby’s Honkytonk and Vine revisited 1980s Los Angeles’ honky-tonk with its cowboy-booted country twang. Serby’s follow-up, Poor Man’s Poem, turned from honky-tonk to folk-flavors, but still kept its roots in country. So what to make of this double-album turn to the sunshine harmonies and chiming electric guitars of power pop? Well first off, the change in direction works. Really well. You can hear influences of both ’60s AM pop (particularly in the faux sitar of “You’re Bored”) and late ’70s power pop and rock, including Gary Lewis, the Rubinoos, and the Records. Serby’s quieter vocals are full of the romantic yearning one would normally ascribe to a love-sick teenager; it’s the bedroom confession of a twenty-something who’s finally enunciating out loud what’s been confusing him for years. Disc two rocks harder and more country than disc one, but even the two-step “I Still Miss You” is set with chiming 12-string and wistful answer vocals. The country-rock “Gospel Truth” brings to mind Rockpile and the Flamin’ Groovies, and the cheating-themed “Rumor of Our Own” connects to Serby’s honky-tonk background. Each of these ten-track discs would have made a good album on their own, but together they show off a terrific continuum of pop, rock, country and a touch of the blues. Serby’s reach across country, folk and rock were evident in his earlier releases, but the pure pop side is a welcome surprise. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

David Serby’s Home Page

Various Artists: Country & Western Hit Parade 1966

Various_CountryAndWesternHitParade1966The 1966 country jukebox of your dreams

The passing of decades often elides the full range of music that spun on jukeboxes and the radio. The commercial necessities of CD (and now MP3) reissue and oldies broadcasting further reinforce this narrow view with hit anthologies and playlists stocked primarily with superstars. What quickly recedes from earshot are the lesser hits and journeyman artists that made up the full context of the times. Faintly remembered are artists like Nat Stuckey, who regularly visited the Top 40 for more than a decade, but only cracked the top-ten a few times, and indelible acts like The Browns are usually recognized for their sole chart-topper, “The Three Bells,” rather than their other half-dozen Top 10s. Even country music’s superstars, such as Faron Young, Eddy Arnold and Ray Price, had so many hits that the bulk of their work is overshadowed by a few well-anthologized icons.

But the true soundtrack of a year’s music is a mix of hits, album tracks, superstars, journeymen, one-hit wonders, chart-toppers, regional breakouts and singles that barely grazed the Top 40. It’s this tapestry that gives a year, an era or a genre its full flavor. Bear Family’s twenty-six volume series Country & Western Hit Parade covers the years 1945 through 1970, one year per disc, interweaving chart classics with a wealth of lesser-anthologized, but equally influential releases. Each disc recreates the sound of its year by placing oft-repeated hits in the company of their lesser-known chartmates, providing context to the former and returning status to the latter.

The mid-60s were a transitional time for country music, with the Los Angeles-based Country & WesternMusicAcademy (later rebranded the ACM) exerting a West Coast pull with the introduction of their all-country awards show. In addition to Nashville’s cross-over pop, torch ballads, 4/4 Ray Price beats and a sprinkle of throwback honky-tonk, 1966 found Bakersfield in full flight, with Buck Owens in the middle of releasing fourteen-straight chart toppers and Merle Haggard starting a series of sixty-one Top 10s, including his first #1, “The Fugitive.” Billboard’s expanded country chart and a refined method of measuring radio play led to faster chart turnover, an increased number of charting titles, and greater opportunity for new acts to break through. Jeannie Seely had her first (and biggest) hit with “Don’t Touch Me,” Mel Tillis broke through with “Stateside,” and Tammy Wynette scored with her first single, “Apartment #9.”

At the same time, veteran acts were winding down or changing direction. The Browns’ “I’d Just Be Fool Enough” was their next-to-last Top 20, and Eddy Arnold fully committed himself to middle-of-the-road pop with “I Want to Go With You.” The latter, though written by Hank Cochran, has a chorus and strings that overwhelm the hint of country in Floyd Cramer’s slip-note piano. Waylon Jennings’ “Anita You’re Dreaming” still bore Chet Atkins’ countrypolitan touches (including a marimba played by Ray Stevens), and though it would be another half-decade until he fully broke free of Nashville’s control, the seeds were being planted. Loretta Lynn found her feisty, personal songwriting voice  with “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and her first chart topper, “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).”

In addition to charting entries, this volume includes Johnny Paycheck’s outré album track “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” Dallas Frazier’s original non-charting single of “Elvira,” and the original demo of “Distant Drums” that (with the appropriate Nashville dubbing) became a posthumous chart topper for Jim Reeves. The list of artists is complemented by a who’s who Nashville and West Coast A-list session players and country songwriters that include Cindy Walker, Tompall Glaser, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Bill Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, Mickey Newbury, Dallas Frazer, Mel Tillis, Jack Clement, Johnny Paycheck, Liz Anderson and Waylon Jennings. Bear Family’s exquisitely selected 31-tracks (clocking in at 83 minutes) are amplified by the label’s attention to detail in sound (original stereo except for 9, 12, 17, 22, 28 and 32), documentation and packaging. Each disc is housed in a hardbound book with 71 pages of liners, color photos and song notes. The set’s only disappointment is the unnecessarily difficult cardboard sleeve in which the disc is housed; deal with it once and keep the disc in a separate case. [©2013 Hyperbolium]