Country Jukebox Jury LPs – The Veterans: Will Hoge, Willie Nelson, Clint Black and Ray Wyle Hubbard

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at Facebook.com/acountrywayoflife

Will Hoge – Tiny Little Movies

Will Hoge is a veteran of East Nashville’s hip scene. He wrote Better Off Now, which was covered by Lady A, and co-wrote Even If It Breaks Your Heart, a number one for Eli Young Band (more writers of that song coming later). I was delighted that Brendan Benson, one of the top singer-songwriters operating today, covered Will’s song Baby’s Eyes on his new album.

Will put out the terrific album Anchors in 2017, following it up with the svelte but punchy My American Dream in 2018. Tiny Little Movies is beefier, with 11 songs that Rolling Stone reviewed positively. His 2015 albums Small Town Dreams was his stab at the mainstream but Will realised he was indie and not mainstream. It’s our gain: ‘You’ve really got to toe the line,’ he said in that interview. But Eric Church can operate outside yet within; perhaps Nashville is allowed to have one outlaw, for the brand, like the Stonecutter Club can have ‘no Homers but one Homer’.

If you like Jason Isbell, The Jayhawks and anything Bob Harris plays with guitars and drums, you’ll love Will Hoge. When I heard Young As We Will Ever Be on his show, I played it five times immediately afterwards. His new collection offers more of the brilliant same, delivered with a rye-soaked vocal. Every track has something to recommend it, be it a lyric, guitar tone or harmonica. The best ones on first listen are Midway Motel, as fine an opener as you will ever hear this side of a Bob Dylan album, the tender The Likes of You, ruminative Maybe This Is OK and The Curse, which is 100% Will Hoge. Listen and discover your new favourite country rocker. 5/5.

Willie Nelson – First Rose of Spring

Bob Dylan topped the US Album Chart the week that an even older man put out his latest album.

I hate that his name is shorthand for cannabis consumption as Willie is so much more than the face of 4/20. At 87, Willie Nelson is still working, even though his July 4 celebration was moved to an online-only shindig. Willie played with his sons Micah and Lukas and his family at his Ranch, while many favourites of the fest – Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Margo Price, Asleep At the Wheel, outlaw Kinky Friedman, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Ziggy Marley – called in from their home.

First Rose of Spring is Willie’s 70th – SEVENTIETH – solo album. Bob Dylan, a sprightly 79, is yet to hit 40 albums! Buddy Cannon has again produced Willie, who mixes covers and originals. The terrific opener and title track is co-written by Randy Houser, while the likes of Don’t Let The Old Man In by Toby Keith (a smart choice of cover, sung with a Leonard Cohen growl), Our Song by Chris Stapleton (‘I don’t know if heaven’s real but that’s how you make me feel’ is proper Stapleton), We Are the Cowboys by Billie Joe Shaver and Stealing Home by Buddy’s daughter Marla. Just Bummin Around sounds like a song young Willie would sing back in the 1940s; indeed, it was written in 1952. Willie was a teenager.

Though Willie is 87 years old, nobody stops being a songwriter. The two originals are Love Just Laughed and Blue Star. The latter song is gorgeous, spectacularly arranged by Buddy Cannon and with harmonica and pedal steel. Likewise Hier Encore, which is retitled Yesterday When I Was Young and given a Texan twist. This is organic music that needs to be heard. 5 blunts out of 5.

Clint Black – Out Of Sane

The hot new artist of 1989 was Clint Black, a rockin, cowboy-hatted guy who was Killin Time on his debut album. The album had four number ones, all written by him, and his big hit-making career coincided with that of Brooks & Dunn, Travis Tritt and Garth, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Possibly because he hasn’t had a huge hit in 20 years, Clint is not mentioned in the same breath – it doesn’t help that Texas love and claim their own – but 28 Top 10 hits in the 1989 and 1990s made him a popular performer.

He featured on a Grand Ol Opry Saturday night show recently, playing alongside Darius Rucker, and I loved his song Nothing But The Taillights. He was there to plug Out of Sane – poor title – and he played a song called America (Still In Love With You), which is a bit sappy and saccharine but effective considering it really is a great nation (with tonnes of problems). I like the chords in The Only One and the positive nature of A Beautiful Day.

He’s a meditative chap as shown by tracks called Can’t Quit Thinkin and My Best Thinkin’. He’s also a detective – we’ve got Found It Anyway and Find Myself – though I think an editor would ensure words weren’t repeated across titles.

There’s a super version of Everybody’s Talkin with a great backbeat that comes in the middle of the album Out Of Sane. The album is full of twang – fans of Brad Paisley will love this! – and Clint’s baritone, which sounds better than ever. It’s a super album and I’m going back into his catalogue as the 90s revival, spearheaded by Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, gathers pace. 4/5 for Out of Sane.

Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring

At 73, Ray Wylie Hubbard is newly signed to Big Machine, having co-written a big song for Eric Church called Desperate Man. I know him by name as an old-school singer who had hits in the pre-Garth era but I wouldn’t be able to hum anything he’s written, so I am coming at his new album Co-Starring relatively fresh.

Big Machine have copied what they did with Sheryl Crow last year – I am positive that Tim McGraw is lining up a duets album with someone other than his wife. I’d love to hear a Garth Brooks duets album too, by the way – I’d like that.

Here, on Co-Starring, Ray sings with acts including Joe Walsh, Ringo Starr, Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, Ashley McBryde, The Cadillac Three, Pam Tillis and Ronnie Dunn. Opening track Bad Trick is smoky and cool. Ringo is on drums, which is very cool considering he just turned 80 (EIGHTY!!). On Fast Left Hand he sounds a lot like Steve Earle, growling over the top of The Cadillac Three’s bluesy guitar playing with, strangely enough, rapidity in the fingering hand.

Cult musician Aaron Lee Tasjan appears on Rock Gods and Larkin Poe are on Rattlesnake Shakin Woman. Drink Till I See Double is a lot of fun, perfect for Broadway’s honkytonks. Pam Tillis lends her gentle voice to both the plinky-plonky Mississippi John Hurt, a good title, and album closer The Messenger, where the great Ronnie Dunn also pops up. The album is rich in sound and a perfect representation of RWH’s USP. I hope he can tour even though he is in the at-risk category. 4/5 for Co-Starring.

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