Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Essex County, Valerie Ponzio and The Outlaw Orchestra

Essex County EP

The Bass brothers – singer/drummer Nate, guitar wizard Mark and rhythm player Kieran – landed on my radar with So Good, a radio-ready ballad which sounded like Kip Moore. Fed up of the TV talent show culture in the UK, they moved from Essex to Tennessee in 2015 and thus became familiar with how to get that sort of sound which would appeal to folk who liked rockin’ country music. They even teamed up with Ron Fair, who was instrumental in getting Christina Aguilera onto the radio in 2000.

Unable to work their material live during the pandemic, the trio had to wait until 2022 to display their brilliance at both Country2Country and Nashville Meets London. Nate played drums with one hand and held the microphone with the other, while Mark tripped over his own foot in his eagerness to impress.

They enjoyed blasting through the effervescent Fire It Up, the impact track from the self-titled project, and a power ballad called You In Tennessee where Nate hits some lovely falsetto notes while taking a tour of the state (‘They call it Wyoming but tell me why you had to go!’)

Waiting On Me is a heartbreak ballad where Nate calls out to a woman ‘up there’, asking if people have ‘wings of gold’ in heaven. Kieran takes lead on Can’t Find Me (‘without you’), sounding a lot like a boyband vocalist, with less gruffness than his brother and a yearning in his vocal (‘now I’m crying, feel like dying’).

Long Way Home opens with a spindly guitar part which is followed by Nate waking up in a hotel room while on the road; he later reveals he’s ‘missing them London bars’. The chorus is driven by the tick of a clock and some contemporary production, which proves the band can be good on record as well as onstage.

Valerie Ponzio – Frontera EP

Part of the Color Me Country line-up at The Long Road this September, Valerie won the unofficial Best Dressed award thanks to a colourful outfit that was perfectly chosen for the occasion.

The EP has been rolled out one track at a time this year, concluding with the fourth song Desert Rain, a languid ballad with an excellent vocal performance. Orale is a pop-country come-on sung in English whose Spanish title sounds great as a hook. I Could Fall In Love, conversely, is a magnificent ballad full of brushed drums and echoing steel guitar; it was a hit for Selena, a Latin popstar whose reputation has grown since her shocking death in the mid-1990s when she was on the cusp of a breakthrough in the Anglophone world. Valerie does her memory justice and I hope she covers more, especially the magnificent Bidi Bom.

Just a Bordertown was a highlight of her Long Road set. Valerie sings that her home on the Texas/Mexico border is so much more than a mere dot on a map: it taught her how to work hard, love, pray and ‘never be ashamed of the people who raised me’. This will resonate with plenty of folk and there’s a great line about ‘Circle K Saturdays’.

Gracias y mas, por favor, señora!

The Outlaw Orchestra – Back Under The Covers

The trio who impressed me at Buckle and Boots this summer return with another covers project, adding five more interpretations of rock songs to the six from 2020. They tackled tunes by Waylon Jennings, The Animals, Dolly Parton and Buffalo Springfield there, and they waste no time impressing the listener with a bluegrassy rock take on John Lennon’s Come Together, where three men make the noise of nine (as the band name suggests).

Itchycoo Park is as pretty as Joe Walsh’s Rocky Mountain Way is rocking, proving that the guys can do soft as well as heavy (check out a smart few bars of drummer Ryan on his own).

There aren’t many bands who can tackle tunes by The Band (Cripple Creek, with a barking finish) and Motorhead, whose song Iron Fist takes away the pummelling drums and replaces them with banjo and slide guitar. Although the trio are a live band foremostly, this EP will get the haemoglobin going too.

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