Jimmie Bratcher,
This is Blues Country
(Ain't Skeert Tunes, 2017)

Hymn River Suite,
Hundred Proof
(CEN/The Orchard, 2017)

"Ninety percent of everything is crap." So pronounces Sturgeon's Law, which one challenges at one's peril. Anyone who waxes sentimental about the quality of what's now called "traditional" country music ought to examine old playlists and watch some old syndicated country television shows. Yup, 90 percent of it was crap.

Happily, there is no denying that the best of country music was (tense deliberate) good indeed. On the delightful This is Blues Country, Kansas City-based electric guitarist Jimmie Bratcher revisits 10 can't-miss classics reimagined in varying degrees of re-creation in rock, blues or r&b formats. The songs will be familiar if you know your country, or maybe even if your acquaintance is only a passing one; Ray Charles had a No. 1 pop hit with Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" in 1962; most listeners don't know Gibson's recording had risen to the top of the country charts in 1958.

The album opens with a rocked-up "Honky Tonk Blues," the Hank Williams evergreen with Bratcher's guitar giving heavy stress to the song's bluesier notes, inspired by Hank's youthful tutoring by the black songster Rufus Payne. Bratcher also manages to find some bluesiness in "You are My Sunshine" (written by Paul Rice, not Jimmie Davis, contrary to what it says here), essentially by turning it into a different song that is less weepy and more muscular; the new message seems to be, "Yes, you broke my heart, but I'm a tough guy, and I can take it."

The tuneful country-pop "Singing the Blues," from Marty Robbins, gets a moody, slow r&b treatment. In fact -- something of a surprise -- Blues Country shines on the down-tempo numbers such as "I Don't Hurt Anymore" (from Hank Snow) and "Under Your Spell Again," utterly unlike the rockabilly arrangement of the Buck Owens & the Buckaroos version. "My Sweet Love Ain't Around" happens to be my favorite Hank Williams song, punctuated here by martial drums and ominous minor chords to splendidly noirish effect.

Much of Hymn River Suite's sound -- modern country, which means a heavy infusion of Southern rock -- is explained by its label, which is a Sony subsidiary. Which means that the songs, or one or two of them, are intended for Hot Country radio.

This is, in short, not an indie release. It is, however, as close to "traditional country" as the industry allows these days. Some of the cuts owe more than a little to early Steve Earle, back when he was being marketed as a country artist and even showing up on some commercial airwaves.

Hundred Proof isn't bad for what it is. It's just not for me.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 July 2017

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