Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Hicktown Breakout, The Southern Gothic and Clayton Smalley

Hicktown Breakout – Lost Myself

Hicktown Breakout are a Bristolian quintet who put out their EP in January 2021, led by the single Get Your Boots On, which is the correct choice of single: it’s a handclaps’n’stomper about how ‘country music’s gonna blow your mind’ full of open chords and fine guitar work. Resistance is futile.

Distorted Lullaby is a cross between The Calling and Counting Crows, with a lyric about how ‘nothing changes’ set to some electric guitars. Lost Myself is the most immediate track, with a Quo-like bouncing riff and great drumwork; the poor singer can’t go home because, it seems, he’s been thrown out by his ex. Yesterday is a chugging country-rock song full of loneliness and regret: ‘Tell me there’s another ways to get back to yesterday’ is a gloomy lyric.

Halfway is a mid-tempo ballad about love and stuff set over four very familiar chords. There’s a lot of Hootie & the Blowfish here, with lots of space in the bridge (‘no I don’t want this’), harmonies in the chorus and a nifty solo. It’ll be a decent singalong in the live sphere, and I don’t think the recording does it justice. Hootie, we recall, were a bar band first and a platinum recording act second. File Hicktown Breakout with The Blue Highways, as this would make an ace double bill.

The Southern Gothic – Burnin Moonlight

This six-track EP came out in November 2020. The band are based in Nashville and are led by Connor Christian, whose voice is authentically country.

Villain is very atmospheric, with a neat sonic bed, as Connor sings of having to be ‘the bad guy’ rather than her Superman. The second verse has a line about tying her to a railroad track in order to stop her trying to prolong the friendship. It’s a cool take on moving on.

Past Midnight (‘the clock keeps tickin and we keep talkin’) is a meet cute set to a fine groove. Ain’t Gonna Lie is horny, a sex jam without the sex, as the narrator realises ‘there ain’t no turning back’ once she gives him the go ahead. Gravity is a similar tempo tune in which Connor sings grandly about not wanting to weigh a lady down if she wants to spread her wings.

Up On Your Love is the result of finally going to bed with a lady and ‘wake up, up, up on your love’. It’s poppy and romantic and smooth. There’s a fiddle intro to Classic, which sounds like a wedding song. It’s another song about how love is like an old record (Garth gets a namecheck) and how ‘trends come and go’. It sounds like an Aaron Watson ballad and Southern Gothic would be a great opening act for Aaron.

Clayton Smalley – Dirt Road Therapy.

Clayton comes from Utah and he wants to make music that harks back to the AOR era of Eagles and Garth Brooks. Two Lane Time Machine is a wonderful homage to Californian rock, with sweet harmonies, some pretty chords and a very good delivery of lyrics full of reminiscin’: ‘One more shot to rewrite history’. Modern Day Merle opens with a fiddle and sounds a lot like Rodeo by Garth Brooks, as Clayton sings of a troubadour’s life on the road. ‘He sings what he sings, he loves who he loves’ is a bit banal but the guitars underneath it create a mood.

The EP’s title track is a slow rocker about wind and Joe Diffie on the radio and the weekend and ‘here we go’ and tossing away one’s cares. You know the sort of thing. I Never Let A Good Time Get Away illustrates what the typical weekend holds (‘always time for one more round’ and ‘no need to sleep it off’). Luke Combs does this sort of thing but Clayton’s effort is good.

Phoenix Rise should be covered by Gary Quinn, as it’s a song about rising up from the ashes with a woozy pedal steel guitar part. Ditto the EP’s closing ballad Watch Me Fall, in which Clayton asks his lady if all she’s going to do is look on as he suffers. It’s a bittersweet way to end an excellent set.

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