Country Jukebox Jury LPs: The Shootouts and Willie Nelson

The Shootouts – Stampede

I spoke to Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel last year, who belongs in the pantheon of musicians, along with Marty Stuart, and Charlie Worsham, who are keeping the old traditions of Western Swing and old-time music alive.

Benson has produced this third album by The Shootouts. The band are from Akron, Ohio, the small town filled with talent from The Pretenders to Devo to Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. They were nominated as Best Honky Tonk Group at the recent Ameripolitan Awards, which rewards acts who are rockabilly and Western Swing. Winners included Sierra Ferrell (who is confirmed for this August’s Long Road festival) and Asleep at the Wheel’s lieutenant and fiddle player, Katie Shore.

Stampede got a five-star write-up in Country Music People, and the album will appeal to those who like their country on the twangier side. Run For Cover (‘here comes a heart’) is a two-minute slice of rockabilly with a femme fatale twist, while the title track is similarly quick and reminds me of one of Brad Paisley’s guitar jams. Feelin’ Kind of Lonely Tonight (good title) has a delicious saxophone solo, while closing track Angel’s Work (‘is never done’) slows things down tenderly, like a car pulling into a drive after a day at work.

Throughout the album, Ryan Humbert’s vocals remind me of the great Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies, as on Coming Home By Going Away. The lyric, which is also the sort that Robertson would write, begins ‘I’d rather be a circle than a square’ and continues in that self-effacing mood.

Marty Stuart himself is on album opener Better Things To Do, a kiss-off which immediately hits us with a bluegrass beat and a finger-picked electric guitar line full of semiquavers. There’s a mandolin solo too, and a bit where the band sinks to pianissimo. Ray takes a feature on One Step Forward, which is a homage to Ray’s band right down to his Bob Wills-inspired callouts and eight tidy bars of fiddle. ‘Gambled on my heart and lost it to you’ points to a lyric about falling for someone, though Ray’s verse is an extended fishing metaphor. Must Be A Broken Heart is also a lot of fun in spite of a lyric which could be a ‘tear in the beer’ weepie.

Some of the tracks have that lush country-soul sound that Bob Harris would love. Anywhere But Here has Buddy Miller, the man who drew up the soundtracks to the TV show Nashville, and he is perfect for a song whose gentle arrangement is full of pedal steel and twang. ‘Where do you stand when your feet don’t touch the ground’ is good writing. Raul Malo adds harmonies on the chugging love song I’ll Never Need Anyone More, while the great Jim Lauderdale is on Tomorrow’s Knocking (‘on our door again’), a song about singing which could have been a Buck Owens tune.

Like Dixieland Jazz and the music of Chic, Western Swing is ageing gracefully as a cornerstone of American popular music. There’s a reason acts like The Shootouts are still working in a tremendously enjoyable type of music.

Willie Nelson – I Don’t Know A Thing About Love

And then there’s Willie, 89 years old and physically unable to retire. Maybe that big IRS tax settlement is the reason he’s still putting on gigs and putting himself into more versions of popular song. His birthday celebration in LA at the end of April 2023 as part of the Stagecoach festival weekend will certainly be recorded for release later this year and will include appearances from his many acolytes. They will range from the sublime (Neil Young, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price) to the Snoop Dogg.

For his seventy-third solo release, Willie has laid down ten interpretations of Harlan ‘Three Chords and the Truth’ Howard, who died on March 3 2002. The collection was released on the 21st anniversary of his friend’s passing.

Willie’s versions are as faithful as his guitar Trigger, with tremulous vocals sitting on top of Buddy Cannon’s arrangements. The title track of the album passes on lessons from ‘the man in the moon’ to someone looking for the answers to life’s big questions. It was a 1984 hit by Conway Twitty and was recorded by Cody Johnson for his album Human.

Buck Owens made hits out of Tiger by the Tail and Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache). The Chokin’ Kind (‘if you don’t like the peaches walk on by the tree’) was a Waylon Jennings hit in 1967, where it sat on an entire album of Howard’s songs. Two years before that, Little Jimmy Dickens recorded Life Turned Her That Way, a lyric full of empathy and empty space for the pedal steel to glide through.

That track has two brief bars of a patented Mickey Raphael harmonica solo too, and he takes the lead on Busted, a smash hit for Ray Charles, with whom Willie has duetted before. I suppose, given the run-ins with the law, Willie had to record this Harlan Howard composition.

The achingly simple She Called Me Baby (‘now there’s no more “baby baby” all night long’) was a hit for Howard himself; a decade later, a recording by Charlie Rich was rediscovered and became his fifth number one. Too Many Rivers was a song initially placed on the B side of a Brenda Lee release but got into the top 20 of the Hot 100; this evocation of heartbreak must have helped Harlan buy a house, or provide alimony for one of four ex-wives he accrued during his life.

Beautiful Annabel Lee has the innocence of young love – if Willie is singing of being ‘a child’ then that was around the time America fought in World War II – while Streets Of Baltimore, written with Willie’s fellow outlaw Tompall Glaser, sounds like an old folk song these days. The heartbreaking line ‘she loved those bright lights more than she loved me’ will resonate in a century’s time.

Willie Nelson, who has sung the Great American Songbook, has reminded us that Harlan Howard is ‘the Irving Berlin of country music’. Now he should look forward to his own celebrations.

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