Jon Byrd,
Route 41
(Longleaf Pine, 2014)

JP Harris & the Tough Choices,
Home is Where the Hurt Is
(Cow Island, 2014)

Reviewing their debut album in this space on 4 August 2012, I observed that JP Harris & the Tough Choices are not trafficking in "hyphenated country. It's not country-rock, country-folk or country-pop. Nor is it ironic or mocking." As its title tells anybody who knows hard country's practice of word-play, Home is Where the Hurt Is is pretty much more of the same, except -- inevitably -- evincing further performance and composing experience. If you like country, not the same as what mainstream Nashville has been marketing in recent decades, this one's definitely for you.

Basically, this is what the best honkytonk country sounded like in the 1960s, building on what Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams created in the 1940s and early 1950s and later on to what George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck made of it. You can call Harris's music "retro" if you must, but it certainly doesn't feel that way. It has a natural, matter-of-fact quality that takes it outside the incidental products of time and circumstance; what matters is that Harris and associates (who include guest artists Steve Berlin [Los Lobos] and Chance McCoy [Old Crow Medicine Show]) render it meaningful. And meaningful is what finally counts in song and performance.

Perhaps surprisingly, Harris doesn't resemble any artist of yesteryear in particular. Having grown up with country and heard a staggering amount of it over the course of a misspent life, I can usually tell to whom a younger artist has been listening (usually Haggard). A young man notwithstanding a florid beard akin to one in a Civil War photograph, Harris has mastered country's traditions so roundly that, barely starting out, he speaks its language but with his own distinctive, difficult-to-trace accent.

Each of the 10 songs is solid and satisfying on just about any level you approach it. The best of them, though, is surely "South Oklahoma," which hints at a novel's worth of human complication in 3:16, with an unforgettable tune to boot. It's sort of like a younger Woody Guthrie being recorded in front of a hillbilly band, not quite the sort of honkytonk-based material Harris (who wrote everything on the disc) ordinarily handles. On the one song where a specific influence is apparent, one may confidently deduce that John Prine would like to have written "Truckstop Amphetamines."

When a package from Jon Byrd arrived in the mail, my thoughts turned to his Down at the Well of Wishes (reviewed 18 February 2012) as an example of superior rooted songwriting. I was unprepared to learn that Route 41 features no Byrd originals. Each of the 10 cuts is courtesy of a singer-songwriter friend or friends to whom he is linked by Nashville and shared Southern upbringing. (Now a Nashville resident, Byrd was raised in Alabama.) This decision is a generous one. The art of song interpretation hovers close to extinction, especially by contemporary country and folk artists.

On another level Route 41 is depressing or exhilarating, depending on how you look at it. The former: if these writers are so good, why aren't they famous? The latter: wow, these are incredible songs. Many of us think, with ample reason, that Nashville songwriting has devolved into brain-crushing pifflery. Of course, there's the East Nashville scene, consisting of mostly unfamous musicians who, though they wouldn't mind having hits, aren't writing for the charts. To my ear a fair amount of this, however admirably intentioned, is less than first-rate, sufficient to generate a degree of suspicion about the would-be genre label "Americana." Besides, self-promoting slogans aside, "Americana" often seems devoid of roots worthy of the name. So I will do Byrd and associates the favor of characterizing the songs here as country of a convincing kind and, when not exactly that, folk of a hard-hitting sort.

In the latter category is the modern-day murder ballad "Just Another Gun" by Al Shelton, so disturbing in its depiction of evil that it recalls, from another time, the ghastly deeds depicted in tradition's "Knoxville Girl," "Banks of the Ohio," "Pretty Polly" and other classics. Shelton's narrative, on the other hand, takes off from the sort of domestic-violence horror you hear just about any day if you follow the news. The story is related from the point of view of a psychopath who murdered his wife years before and, so far anyway, has gotten away with it. The subtext, by the way, will not please NRA members.

Though Byrd's own songs as well as those to which he's drawn tend toward the seriously gloomy, humor is not entirely absent along Route 41. The opener, James Kelly's "George Jones (Has Never Sung About My Girl)," is at once a send-up and a celebration, rendered in a drolly comic voice. Then again, Davis Raines and Pamela Jackson's "Going to Montgomery" addresses the musical and racial paradox of that Alabama city, raising the specters of Hank Williams and Martin Luther King, two very different men with very different legacies. Greta Lee's "Walk on By" is not to be confused with Leroy Van Dyke's 1961 mega-hit, one of the greatest cheatin' songs ever. Lee's gets its harrowing quality from its utter, yet near-banal, realism. It envisions an encounter every person who has experienced romantic heartbreak -- which is to say everyone who's ever been in love more than once -- will recognize all too uneasily.

The album's 10 cuts are marvels of the craft of composition. It's one record that all singer-songwriters, many of whom need the lessons conveyed, would do well to hear. Yet even one who thinks himself informed -- I refer to myself -- will wonder at the obscurity of the contributors. Counting collaborations, I toll up 13 names. I recognize Adam & Shannon Wright (Adam is longtime country star Alan Jackson's nephew), Peter Cooper and Will Kimbrough. If their work is accurately represented on this disc, I would like to hear a whole lot more of Kelly, Lee, Shelton, Raines, Jackson, Mando Saenz, Baker Maultsby, Chris Richards, and Dave Marr & the Star Room Boys.

And -- finally and importantly -- let us not fail to praise Byrd's smartly delivered conversational vocals and the small country band that backs him and the songs with wonderful attention to the stories and the emotions.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 October 2014

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