In this two-parter I run through the biggest acts and songs from my voyage into Red Dirt country where Texas declares its independence from the Nashville scene. In this second part, I look at songs by various members of the Texas music scene. All of them are either surging to or have been number one on the Texas Regional Radio Chart.
George Navarro – When She’s Drinkin. An irresistible four-chord pop which is at odds with the lyric. George realises the only time his lady loves him is when she’s had a few ‘and she ain’t drinkin’ anymore’. He’s singing through his heartbreak.
Mark Powell – Breaking Things. A midtempo ballad sung eloquently in a deep timbre: ‘My pride is whipped from a long stretch of heartache’. It’s another song from Texas that celebrates men who are quite rubbish in love? The lyric ‘you break it, you pay for it’ is great.
Reckless Kelly – I Only See You With My Eyes Closed. This sounds like an interstate drive on a July afternoon but there’s a sad lyric tied to the wide-open guitars and jolly melody.
Jody Booth – Gotta Go Back To Work. This starts with a twanging riff, adds some fiddle and pedal steel, then a Garthish croon comes in. ‘I don’t remember nothin bout last night,’ Jody sings of his crazy night, and realising that to ‘get a little rest’ he has to go to work, eschewing the honkytonks in the daytime.
Josh Abbott Band – The Luckiest. An obvious single from the great Highway Kind album, this is the wedding song that Texans will enjoy in a socially distanced fashion next year. The chorus shouts out hometowns, friends, cold beer and ‘good times’, as well as an obligatory reference to ‘King George’. Above all, Josh is ‘the luckiest to be loved by you’. As wedding songs go, with the rim of the snare drum driving the backbeat, this is glorious. The second verse, when the piano and banjo pop up, is glorious.
Jake Bush – Gravity & You. An army veteran, Jake’s seven-track album 7 is being promoted with a song about how dependent on his beloved he is. She keeps him ‘tethered’ and brings him ‘back to earth’. The sentiment is simple and direct and will resonate with many Texans.
Kylie Frey – Spur of the Moment. Over a chugging acoustic beat, Kylie sends off her man who has an adventurous soul; indeed, the spur is ‘digging in’ and ‘cuts deep’. What a great voice, harmonies and story here: ‘he ain’t my mama’s dream but he’s everything to me’ and thus she can’t go to sleep until she knows her man is safe. This is almost perfect and contains horses, which very few country songs today contain, and a fiddle solo (ditto).
Kylie Frey – I Do Thing. What a wonderfully kinetic opening few bars, setting the scene for a lyric where Kylie reveals her ‘habit of being attracted to doing whatever I want’. She never thought she’d want to settle down but ‘suddenly I’m changing my mind’. She’s a great vocalist, like her fellow Texans Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves who have made waves in Nashville. This song is getting pushed to Nashville radio and is climbing towards the top of the Texan chart. Her EP is called Rodeo Queen.
James Lann – Everydayers. The title refers to people who ‘in all kinds of weather…stick together in a world full of naysayers’. These people ‘get er done’ and ‘hang tough no matter what’, and it does sound a little vague. However, the guitar solo in the middle of it sounds like heartland rock and the vocal is very similar to Aaron Watson’s.
Deryl Dodd – Let Me Hold You Tonight. As I pressed play, I guessed this was to be a love song to slowdance to, and probably the guy is lucky to have the girl in spite of his faults. Nope. Deryl’s lady has left her but he wants to go after her. He is ‘not perfect’ – so far, so Texan – but can’t lose his beloved. ‘Come home to me, darling’ is his plea over a waltz tempo and some pedal steel. There’s heartache and longing and everything George Jones loves to sing about. As country as the day is long, and I was disappointed to hear a plaintive piano solo instead of a spoken word bit in the middle.
Bri Bagwell – As Soon As You. A very rare number one from a lady, the singer is a seven-time winner of Texas Female Vocalist of the Year. Her voice is somewhere between Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert, soft but punchy and As Soon As You is a good showcase for it. ‘Eventually I want to say I Do…I just won’t get there as soon as you!’ is a fine line.
David Adam Byrnes – Neon Town. The title track of his album. From Arkansas, David looks great in a cowboy hat. His biography says he headed to Nashville, got a minor hit, learned to write lots of bro country, lost his deal, heard Texas’ Red Dirt Music and heeded Aaron Watson’s advice to get the hell out of Nashville. His last song I Can Give You One was number one the week the pandemic hit America and any touring was postponed. Neon Town is a fine rocker of a song that I pressed play on immediately after hearing it a first time. ‘Raisin hell and raisin 12oz to a country song’ is fun, and any Luke Combs fan will find much to enjoy.
Curtis Grimes – Little Bit. The song starts with some fiddle and electric guitar and I love the opening line about a girl like ‘a needle in a haystack…A blond-haired Mona Lisa’. It transpired that it’s about his daughter whom he tucks in at night. Curtis’ baritone is magnificent and he certainly loves his kid who ‘throws a fit when she can’t get her jammies on’. ‘I dread that day me and mama give her away’.
Mark Powell – Project. I love the swampy riff, four bars of intricate pedal steel and Mark’s very country vocal tone. ‘I need a home and you need a project’ is the hook, as Mark invites the woman to turn a ‘stray dog’ into a man. The video is worth a watch as well, which brings the song to life through humour.
Jesse Raub Jr – I’d Look Good On You, which has another swampy riff and impassioned vocalist. Jesse sells the song brilliantly and I love the line ‘sawdust, hardwood, neon speaking the truth’. Jon Pardi does this sort of thing very well over in Nashville
Granger Smith – Country Things. Get this for songwriting credits: Ernest K Smith, Brian Kelley, Hardy (who is SO HOT right now) and Jordan Schmidt. These guys know country things and this is a nice gift for Granger. The song opens with banjo and mandolin then adds light drums, piano and fiddle before Granger has sung a syllable. It’s a list of things that are country – try and fill in your bingo card but I’ll start you off: ‘no ma’am’, ‘dirt road’, ‘church’, ‘boots’ and ‘crickets’. It’s gorgeous and clinical – exactly what Marty Stuart talks about when he says a country singer carries a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. There’s even an instrumental coda at the end.
Stoney LaRue and Tanya Tucker – Meet In The Middle. This chugs with energy from the opening bar – real drums, real harmonica – as Stoney (who is a man) sings of wanting to go all the way but asking Tanya to do a bit of giving as well as taking. Tanya, who started as a teenager, is becoming country’s answer to Mavis Staples, a heritage act with huge appreciation from those who came after her. Her vocal is tremendous and the song is a pleasant three minutes.
William Clark Green – Poor. A waltz which is full of mandolin and fiddle, and William’s vocals aren’t quite there, giving it that Red Dirt authenticity. It helps that the chap looks like a manual worker too, with strong forearms. Whereas his lady is ‘a saint’ and ‘a queen’, he is ‘a sucker, a sinner, three times a loser’. I could predict a section full of la-laing. I wanted more about how they are poor; aside from ‘cracks in the ceiling’ there’s not much imagery.
Read the first part of this piece here.