Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Alex Williams and Hillbilly Vegas

Alex Williams – Waging Peace

I missed the first album by Alex Williams, which was out on Big Machine the same year (2017) that Taylor Swift put out Reputation on the same label. The record did nothing and Alex became an independent artist while working on his second album.

It’s certainly a voice more suitable to an indie rather than a radio environment, although technically Big Machine is an indie attached to Sony Music. Old Before My Time chugs along like a Midland song (who are on Big Machine themselves), with Alex walking the line and ‘singing songs from 1969’.

The opening seconds of the opening track put me in mind of Jason Isbell or classic country chuggers like Waylon Jennings (‘ain’t lookin’ for any trouble, ain’t turnin’ any trouble down’). Higher Road stomps along with a marvellous groove that Alex’s vocals more than match as he dispenses wisdom such as ‘I won’t sell my soul lookin’ for a higher road’ and ‘only time can tell’.

Then there are the songs praising a wild spirit. Fire smoulders with a minute of guitar-led sound painting before Alex sings of ‘blue light innocence’, describing the effects of a girl he has just spotted who will ‘take your breath away’. Confession opens ‘she’s a lady most of the time’, which instantly draws in the listener’; Alex doesn’t know if he’s lucky or ‘cursed’ to have this lady.

The Best Thing (‘that’s ever happened to you’) is a smart shuffle with a neat hook and a brief harmonica solo in the middle. Rock Bottom also slows things down, with the arrangement matching the lyric of despair where Alex’s narrator is ‘counting his misfortunes’. There’s another smart lyrical hook here: ‘the only thing that’s left is anything to lose’. Then the lyric drops out and we get two minutes of blues in D major which fades out as the pedal steel comes in. Always leave the listener wanting more.

The title track sums up the sound of the album: reverberating guitar lines, a solid opening line about ‘a tripped-out TV’ and a well-worn vocal telling us that pacificism would meet ‘the belly of the beast’ which ‘looks a lot like me’. Double Nickel, on the other hand, is a fun road song full of abandon to match Alex’s drive on Interstate 55.

The album ends with a pair of tracks: The Struggle is four minutes of wisdom about the journey being more important than the destination (‘I made more miles than money’); The Vice asks listeners to ‘pick your poison’ in order to escape daily life. It’s a sombre end to a great collection whose musicianship and variety make it worth your time. Not for the first time, Big Machine’s loss is our gain.

Hillbilly Vegas – The Great Southern Hustle

Radio 2 has several specialist music shows dedicated to blues, jazz, folk, country and rock. Each has its own template and style, although sometimes you can get acts who mix genres. Fairport Convention and The Band did folk-rock, while

‘Bad rock with a fiddle’ is how Tom Petty described commercial country music. Southern rock, which his band the Heartbreakers specialised in, is a genre which draws fans of rock and country. Plenty of Nashville acts call themselves ‘country’ but are really ‘rock’: Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton, even Garth Brooks.

This compilation introduces the band to a UK market, coinciding with a show at the famed Troubadour venue in West London. You can already tell what it’s going to sound like by the tracklist. High Time for a Good Time and Shake It Like A Hillbilly both have squealing guitar solos and impassioned vocal performances that remind country fans of The Cadillac Three.

Livin’ Loud is a three-minute clarion call that cannot be listened to without nodding one’s head and taking the band’s advice to ‘grab a cold one’. Can’t Go Home is a hymn to living wild and carefree while getting blotto (‘so much for being happy – I wouldn’t want to lose my edge!’), while Hell To Pay brings the devil to the party.

Then, naturally, there come the power ballads. Long Way Back (‘from where I’m standing now’) is well arranged and sounds like what Boston, Asia, Chicago and all those other acts named after places used to do in about 1984. Little Miss Rough and Tumble has some gentle organ to underscore a compassionate lyric sung to the protagonist.

There’s a rock’n’roll thrust to Just Say You Love Me (‘I don’t need pictures and melodies’). Losin’ To Win sounds like Jon Bon Jovi broken down and heartbroken. ‘The life of the party is dying inside’ sings the narrator, along with the words ‘selective memory’ and ‘raise a toast to this jester’.

The second side of the album starts with I-Tsu-La/ Let’s Get Together, which is led by a prog-rock organ part that recalls the music made in 1973 (Dark Side of the Moon, by the way, is approaching 50 years old), then breaks into a bluesy series of riffs, the right amount of cowbell and the line ‘ain’t nothing wrong with how the spirit moves you’. Rock’n’roll is homage only at this point.

Two Gun Town combines the best elements of the album: organ, riffing, a breakdown in the middle of the song, close vocal harmonies and a heavy, heart backbeat. ‘I am the law in this town!!’ is the main hook. For an encore, there’s the old stalwart Ring of Fire, where a twin guitar attack helps the album end with a flourish.

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