Gary Bennett,
Human Condition
(Landslide, 2006)

Guitarist and vocalist Gary Bennett helped found the Nashville band BR549, a critics' favorite that -- in the fashion of such -- attained only modest commercial success. An inside joke for the sorts of hard-core country fans who fondly recalled the cornpone television series Hee Haw (that would include me), its name came out of a running skit in which cast member Junior Samples, in the persona of a mumbling, befuddled, verbally challenged used-car salesman, flashed a sign and urged viewers to phone BR549 for more information. If it did not sound exactly like a traditional honkytonk outfit, BR549 -- the band, not the prop -- still had enough of a 1950s/'60s barroom-country vibe that it was routinely pegged as a retro exercise.

I am no authority on the band, to which I've listened only spottily, if with appropriate respect, but not with abundant interest. Maybe it was one of those groups best heard live. In any event, Bennett says he left BR549 (in 2002) because he resented the retro label, which he found constricting. Even so, his first solo outing doesn't come across as any radical departure, to my hearing anyway. The title tune, also the opening cut, is one of those rockabilly numbers (slightly updated) to which anybody who likes rockabilly will instantly take. Not Ronnie Self or Charlie Feathers, of course, but it'll do.

Most of the rest of the CD is devoted to a bare-bones acoustic-electric vision of country, fusing elements of both alternative and mainstream without falling into either genre. The lyrics, which are personal and straightforward, are not terribly ambitious but -- except in the instance cited in the following paragraph -- not stupid, either. The songs move along as a rule at a lulling mid-tempo. Some, one suspects, could be radio hits, given a bigger production budget and attendant sonic excess.

Bennett wrote or co-wrote the bulk of them, and in general they're perfectly listenable, albeit not especially memorable. Hands down, the worst of the lot has to be "Things That Mean a Lot to Me," a paean to the joys of domesticity dipped in the icky saccharine of 1970s Bobby Goldsboro. Bennett's vocal also happens to be distressingly Goldsboroesque. Like any sensible human, I endorse the joys of domesticity but detest all songs about them. Could anything be more obviously true than that the best songs are about things you would never want to happen to you?

Some here, I am pleased to report, ascend above the average. "Steel Ball," not a Bennett composition, has the resonance of something Woody Guthrie could have written if he'd had access to an electric band. The country-pop "Ship in a Bottle" hangs on a nicely imagined metaphor. "What Turned Out to Be," another non-original, is a gripping, bitter hard-country turn, and Bennett's rockin' "American Dreamin'" not entirely good-naturedly lampoons Americans' battered but never bowed hopes for a better tomorrow.

Bennett has the benefit of a superior band whose ranks include pedal-steel master Lloyd Green, Marty Stuart's well-regarded guitarist Kenny Vaughan and, on one cut, Stuart himself. The production, by R.S. Field (who's also guided Billy Joe Shaver and Allison Moorer through the studio), snaps and sparkles.

by Jerome Clark
27 May 2006

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