Redd Volkaert,
(Telehog, 2008)

I'm not sure what age you have to reach before you hear yourself saying, "They just don't make 'em like that anymore." If we've reached that dubious juncture in our lives, you or I could be talking about elemental rock 'n' roll (now called "roots rock") or pure honkytonk ("traditional country"). Fortunately, we would be wrong. Some keenly talented artists still fashion vital music out of those forms, even if you don't hear them on Top 40 radio, or whatever they call it these days. I wouldn't know because my ears, which have precise and impeccable taste, won't accept that stuff.

Redd Volkaert -- born in Canada, now of Austin, Texas -- is not exactly a household name except among practitioners of downhome electric-guitar sounds and non-musicians like me who make it a point to pay attention. In those quarters he's revered.

Volkaert was a member of a later edition of Merle Haggard's legendary Strangers band, and today he keeps busy playing with two regional hillbilly outfits, the Lucky Tomblin Band and Heybale (both of whose CDs I've reviewed in this space). He also has time for the Redd Volkaert Band when the other two aren't around. The present album comes out of the latter's repertoire.

Like the best unadulterated country, blues and rock 'n' roll, Reddhead has the sound of a swinging bar band spinning out music for dancin' and drinkin' while touching all the honkytonk bases. Among the songs are a couple of covers of hits, Wayne Carson Thompson's "The Letter" (The Box Tops, 1967) and Ivy J. Bryant's "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" (Waylon Jennings, 1968). Though there's nothing wrong with either song and they're done perfectly capably, they suffer from overexposure which even one of Volkaert's special gift fails to overcome.

Happily, other covers include some less familiar and more engaging material; for example, Eddie Beethoven's near-delirious "Jackhammer Rock," which just about any songwriter in the world would be proud to have written. It's terrific, elemental rock 'n' roll, but it is also spiced with smart and unexpected lyrics in which the word "rock" takes on a whole range of meanings. A.L. Owens and Whitey Shafer's "I'll Break Out Tonight" is an old-fashioned, heart-ripping prisoner's lament of the kind that has vanished entirely from today's cleaned-up, suburbanized faux-country Nashville music.

Of the originals, Volkaert, who comes across otherwise as an amiable sort, contributes two of the angriest falling-out-of-marriage songs I've heard: "We Need to Talk" and "Just Because I Don't Care" (both with Laura Durham), the sorts of songs whose stories one can't just make up. (As one with both songwriting and falling-out-of-marriage experience myself, I know.) In their writing Volkaert and Dunham, like the most accomplished country composers, turn relationship cliches on their heads, here to particularly bitter effect. These are fine songs, all the more powerful because they force the listener to squirm a little. On the other hand, Volkaert and Dunham's Howlin' Wolf-flavored "Call the Pound" takes comparably acid sentiments and makes them funny. Meantime, the Volkaert band does a terrific job of sounding like something you'd hear on Chicago's South Side, circa the 1950s.

Brimming with Southwestern flavors, Reddhead serves up a tasty stew. It's suitable for dances and parties, of course, but if you don't happen to be at either at the moment, you can put it on the player and give hard-working ears an aural feast.

review by
Jerome Clark

20 September 2008

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