Marc Berger,
(Real, 2011)

Randy Thompson,
(Jackpot, 2012)

If the music is playing in the background and you're not paying much attention, you might mistake Randy Thompson, who revels in rock rhythms and loud electric guitars, for just another generic current Nashville act. Start to pay him heed, and that impression quickly dissipates. Thompson is an original, and those modern arrangements are tethered to a keen awareness not only of traditional country but of its older folk background.

On Collected, consisting mostly of cuts from three CDs released between 1998 and 2008 (I reviewed the most recent of them, Further On, in this space on 17 May 2008), Thompson makes clear he is both an exceptionally fine songwriter and an inspired interpreter of old-time ballads such as "Ol' 97" and "Molly & Tenbrooks," which he sets in roaring contemporary arrangements. The hard-rocking opening cut, "Songbird," even quotes the traditional Anglo-American "Once I Had a Sweetheart." If Thompson owes a debt to country-folk singer-songwriter Steve Young, acknowledged in the dedication on his previous album, his overall approach is undeniably distinctive. For a quick demonstration of the differences, give a listen to their respective takes on Utah Phillips's classic "Rocksalt & Nails."

The more you listen, the less Thompson sounds like a Nashville artist at all. In fact, he lives in a small Virginia town and from that vantage has conjured up his own notion of country music. His compositions, devoted to expressions of romantic angst, are melodic and convincing, confessional songwriting at its most compelling. There is not a weak cut to be found. If you're wondering what 21st-century country music should be like, look no farther.

New Yorker Marc Berger shares some influences -- on the folk side of the ledger, anyway -- with Thompson. You might think of him as Guy Clark with more consistently memorable tunes. Frankly, I was prepared to dislike Ride before I heard it, if on not especially rational grounds. The Western-music movement is so insistent on authenticity that if you're not an actual rancher or cowboy -- in other words, know of what you sing from firsthand experience and a broken bone or two -- you're going to have a hard time getting heard. Berger's West, on the other hand, is an imagined one, conjured out of his reading and occasional time spent as a visitor to the Rocky Mountain region.

My expectations being low, I anticipated something naive, sentimental and forgettable. I was wrong. Ride impresses with its appealing songs, tough-mindedness and, often enough (as in the particularly powerful "Long Way from Vixenburg"), multi-layered meanings. As much meditations on life itself as on plains life, the songs -- all from Berger's pen -- generate their own authenticity. The arrangements, which are mostly acoustic, with Berger on guitar backed by four stellar players, never falter. No mistaking it, this is the good stuff, roots music infused with intelligence and wisdom.

music review by
Jerome Clark

24 March 2012

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