Leon Seiter,
In the Shadow of a Honky Tonk
(Legend, 2003)

In the Shadow of a Honky Tonk is the sort of record that reminds me why I like country music, and also why the sort of country music Michigan singer Leon Seiter (pronounced Soo-ter) does could easily be called folk music, for all it has to do with the stuff that comprises mainstream Nashville product these days. Seiter, a veteran honkytonk musician with occasional modest chart successes in another era, harkens back to the age of the hillbilly shuffle pioneered in the mid-1950s by Ray Price.

The problem for someone like Seiter is that Price's singing sets a bar so high that few can reach it. One of those few is not Seiter, whose voice only thinly approximates Price's and, moreover, may do the same for the younger Seiter's. He is not a young man, and age has taken an all-too-obvious toll on that voice.

Still, the record has its charms. The band features such legends as steel guitarist Buddy Emmons and fiddler Buddy Spicher, and it swings as nicely as you could hope for. The songs are good, sturdy ones, though -- given the overwhelming full-tilt hillbilly-boogie power of Buck Owens's original "Under Your Spell Again" versus the listless cover version here -- sometimes they only serve to underscore Seiter's limitations. (Worse, "Spell" is the opening cut.) On the other hand, the title song, composed by Howard Walker (who wrote four of the disc's 10 tunes) is a dandy one. In this instance Seiter's fragile voice effectively evokes the fragile psyche of its wounded barfly narrator. As with the best honkytonk laments it tells a tale that feels not just sad but true, like somebody's hard-luck story from the next barstool.

Actually, the record sort of grows on you. With each listening I like it a little better, after nearly dismissing it altogether on first hearing, largely on the basis of its ill-considered first song. If you're smart or have been around long enough to figure it out, you know how often the perfect is the enemy of the good. Seiter is one of those nearly anonymous, not nearly appreciated-enough grassroots performers who keep country music country, at least in that dimly lit place where it all started -- in the shadow of a honkytonk.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 29 November 2003

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