Country Jukebox Jury LPs: The Wilder Blue and Red Clay Strays

The Wilder Blue (self-titled album)

If ever a band screamed Bob Harris, it’s The Wilder Blue, who got the seal of approval at the end of March when Bob chose to play all six minutes of the self-titled album’s centrepiece. The Ol’ Guitar Picker is a narrative song set to a loping groove that could have been written in 1973 and introduced on the Old Grey Whistle Test by a twentysomething Whispering Bob. There’s even a long fade and in 2022 the long fade is almost extinct!! ‘There’s only one rule in music: if it sounds good, then it is’ is basically the Bob Harris credo.

The quintet used to be called Hill Country but have chosen a smarter name. They go direct to the consumer, asking their fans to subscribe to their music via their Hideout at thewilderblue.com.

The opening chorus of the album’s opening track Picket Fences recalls Alabama’s multi-part harmonies. There’s banjo pickin’, live drum thwackin’ and ‘piece of heaven’ in the lyric. It’s a smart way to invite the listener into the sound of the album, which continues on Wave Dancer, a song with a melody that seems to have been carved from stone.

Feelin’ The Miles leans towards Fleetwood Mac’s West Coast rock sound and is a smart choice of single. Written and sung by bandleader Zane Williams, there is a proper structure with a definitive middle eight that has all the things I like in country music: instrumentation, chords, harmonies and a strong melody.

As for lyrical inspiration, gorgeous reminiscin’ song The Birds of Youth includes words and phrases like ‘each yellow squash I picked’, ‘puffing on his pipe’, ‘cicadas’, ‘crank’, ‘sticky’ and the melancholy ‘pictures are fading’, plus a reference to TV channel Nick@Nite. Build Your Wings is a piece of life advice to learn as you go and to remember the lows, and Okie Soldier is a hymn for home from far away: ‘I turned 21 with my hands around my gun…choking on the dust and sand of a harsh and foreign land.’

Shadows and Moonlight has a train beat, a dual solo from guitar and banjo and a mysterious lyric where something untoward happens to our protagonist. ‘Memories come alive at midnight’ is the message. Meanwhile, The Kingsnake and the Rattler (come on!!!) sounds like a fable by Aesop narrated by Charlie Daniels, and album closer The Ghost of Lincoln brings back the banjo and the layers of harmony. There are hummingbirds, disco balls and a chorus you would have been disappointed not to have followed the quiet verse.

The Conversation, which sounds like a Jackson Browne homage, has all of these plus a phenomenal opening line: ‘The Head said to the heart, “What are you thinking?!”’ If you like music from California in summer 1971, as I do, you will love this album, which is one of my favourites of the year so far.

Red Clay Strays – The Moment of Truth

As with The Wilder Blue, Red Clay Strays raised the funds to record this album via their fans who were attracted by the eclecticism of the quartet from Mobile, Alabama. Jason Isbell is the best known musician from that state, making connections one fan at a time, and RCS are in that vein.

With a rumble of bass, the album begins with a blues-rock tune called Stone’s Throw. Drums and guitar join in and it has a pleasingly retro sound which owes much to the boys who imitated black music in the 1960s. Moment of Truth is almost a blues version of Dark Side of the Moon: a riff that reminds me of Money is set to the same tempo as Comfortably Numb, with delayed guitar chords and high backing vocals over a drum part heavy on cymbals. Don’t Care starts off with a similar vibe before rocking out in the coda, though the lyric ‘I live my life and I don’t care if I die’ is rather defeatist, I think.

The echoes of old rock and soul recur over the album. Do Me Wrong has the feel of Stand By Me with the lyrics doing the opposite to that song (‘all you ever do is do me wrong’); Wondering Why unsurprisingly given the band are from Alabama reminds me of the music that came out of Muscle Shoals, with a lyric showing how opposites attract (he’s a bit ‘blue collar, low dollar’ and she’s a bit ‘private school’). I also like the silky guitar lines on Sunshine even though our narrator admits to being ‘unfaithful’.

She’s No Good, conversely, is a cautionary tale set to a toe-tapping beat, while both Ghosts and Forgive (‘it hurts so much living with regret’) possess a great structure and a smattering of licks. On the gentle waltz called Heavy Heart (‘is breaking me’), I realise that the vocal reminds me of folk act Devendra Banhart or a less expressive Paolo Nutini, who both have voices that flap their wings.

There’s even a politically charged track. Killers experiments with a walkie-talkie exchange and a narrator ‘born on the sidewalk’ who was drafted in what I suppose is the Vietnam War which ‘seemed like a joke’. The album ends with Doin’ Time, sung from a penitentiary. It’s authentically bluesy and points to a great live band who are playing dates across America in plenty of states, including Texas and Nashville, where they will help to cure some hangovers at CMA Fest at 11am on the Sunday!

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