Monday, May 25, 2015

album review: 'hold my beer vol. 1' by randy rogers & wade bowen

You know, I don't talk a lot about regionalism in country music - mostly because, to most mainstream listeners, you'd never be able to tell. Unless you're in Canada and get a slice of Alberta country courtesy of CRTC rules, most people would simply assume if you get country music on the radio, it's out of Nashville, especially with the increased amalgamation of radio across the US. And that's often the furthest thing from the truth, given that there are subsectors of country music all across the United States that have a distinctive sound and feel outside of the increasingly polished Nashville scene.

So let's talk about one of those scenes today and one that I've been too long in brushing over: Texas country. Commonly known as 'red dirt country' music, it tends to blur the lines between neotraditional, plain-spoken respect for the working man and rough-edged outlaw country, with brawnier guitars, a stronger acoustic flavour, and a heavier focus on lyricism and raw live performances. And while there have been plenty of country heavyweights throughout the decades that have hailed from Texas - Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson - in recent years there's been a potent resurgence as a backlash against Nashville's increasingly slick sound. And as bro-country continues to collaspe in upon itself, there's been speculation, especially in the indie scene, that red-dirt country might work to fill the vacuum.

And it's not like they don't have the quality to get there, as some of my favourite country acts of the past few years have come from this subgenre. Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, James Mc Murtry, Jason Eady, we're talking about great acts dropping solid if not downright excellent records, the best of their respective years, and thus I shouldn't be all that surprised that well-respected acts in this vein might team up and take a stab at it together. In this case, we're talking about Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers, the latter of which has been slugging it out in the Randy Rogers Band on the far outskirts of mainstream country and unfortunately got sucked into the swirling eddy that was the overly slick pop country of the mid-to-late 2000s - incidentally, the same time I stopped listening to a lot of country music. Wade Bowen comes from a similar era, but he's tended to stick to slightly more personal material and stronger songwriting. Yeah, I know I'm late to the punch - again - on covering this, but could a team-up record titled Hold My Beer, Volume 1 be the record they need to take them over the top?

Well, probably not anywhere on mainstream radio - but if you venture outside of that, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers might have dropped one of the most remarkably solid, personality-filled neotraditional records you'll hear this year. And what I love is that it's the sort of collaboration that does exactly what it needs to do - plays both of men's natural charisma, pairs it with great traditional country tones, and gives us some solid songwriting to make the most of it. I'm not quite sure it's my favourite country record of this year - James McMurtry's 'Complicated Game' is a damn difficult record to top, but there's a sense of lightweight, hangdog struggle to Hold My Beer, Vol. 1 that's just infectious. For a guy who grew up on Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, and George Strait, this just works for me.

But let's ask the question why, and part of this starts with Rogers and Bowen themselves. Both have solid enough voices for this sort of record - heartfelt, rough-edged, filled with enough charm to make some pretty simple stories remain compelling. It's not a record that takes itself all that seriously, and Rogers and Bowen approach it with the ease of veterans, which you can definitely see in the interplay of their vocal harmonies. If I were to nitpick, it's that the two tend to have similar vocal ranges - Bowen's is a little higher and cleaner, Rogers' is lower, a little rougher, and probably my favourite - and that can mean they don't quite get as much out of the interplay as they could. When you look at country duos, the contrast is always some of the best part, and sometimes it's not as pronounced as it could have been.

But really, the fact they have any interplay at all puts them leagues ahead of many country duos and bands - looking at you, Florida Georgia Line - and what was a real pleasant surprise is that it extends into the instrumentation as well. And make no mistake, this is traditional country in every sense of the word: yeah, there's some heavier guitars as points, but not without banjos, fiddles, and steel guitar to match the acoustic grooves. And I really need to highlight the guitarwork on this record - yeah, the textures and production are a little more polished than I'd usually prefer, but the interweaving solos and the thicker grooves have enough snarl and edge to play off each other strikingly well. Take the synchronization on both electric and steel guitars on 'I Had My Hopes Up High', which even threw in some organ swell on the fourth and fifth verses and a fiddle solo because it wasn't awesome enough yet. Of course, like with most traditional country I do wish they experimented a little more with different chord progressions, as there's a fair few songs that don't sound that far removed from others in the genre, but I was struck by the number of points where compositionally Rogers and Bowen did switch things up, typically by making the progressions a little more staccato. And when you have moments like on the bass opening and guitar solo of 'Good Luck With That', the striking melodic progression that drives 'Standards', especially on its slightly off-kilter chorus, the more melancholy 'El Dorado' that's easily the album highlight for the attention done to the layering, especially with the electric guitar sizzling just in the background and the acoustic moment during the bridge and final chorus that hits me like a ton of bricks and then goes on for a minute of excellent solos, or the chorus melody of 'Hangin' Out In Bars', you can recognize the attention to detail in melodic construction that shows a ton of meticulous craftsmanship. And even though I did find the thicker twang of 'Lady Bug' even a little too thick for me, the old-fashioned vibe of the track was still executed well-enough to win me over, especially with the harmony on the ending chorus.

But now we need to go onto the lyrics and themes, and the first thing that becomes apparent is the choice of tone: Bowen and Rogers play the entire album with the sort of rollicking camraderie that comes with long-time friends trying to make it and playing it with enough self-awareness to keep a smile. Specifically, they aren't afraid to take a hard look at a music industry that doesn't really have the same time for their style of music anymore. The country music press first went wild about 'Standards', the song that's bound to get the most attention for both men rejecting mainstream success in favour of cultivating artistic integrity, which I can definitely respect, but they aren't afraid to show the costs of making that sort of decision, or of being headstrong for all the wrong reasons. 'Til It Does', 'Good Luck With That', 'Hangin' Out In Bars', and the Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard cover that closes the album 'Reasons To Quit' shows the duo paying the price for neglect towards women or the hardships that come with their careers, especially after fifteen years in the industry. In fact, if we're looking for a thematic undercurrent in this record, it'd be the question of whether or not it's all been worth it, a question which the record never really addresses directly, with songs like 'Lady Bug' praying for something to break the drought or especially 'El Dorado' calling to mind a lonesome cowboy accepting he can't always find the lost gold and some form of relief instead of endless wandering. You can really view that song as the more abstract form of 'Standards', with the gold being fame and fortune promised by an industry that rarely ever pays due - Rogers and Bowen are simply being realistic, and while that life takes its toll, the optimism that they approach the song makes you want to root for these guys.

So overall, this is a record that lays all of its cards on the table and is exactly what you'd think it'd be: a relatively lightweight, steadfastly neotraditional country record, with Bowen and Rogers being the guys who have seen enough to shrug and keep on trucking through it all. And while there are moments where I wish they had delved a little deeper - 'It's Been A Great Afternoon' is the only track I'd routinely skip, if only for being a pretty basic hangover-revival song - that was never really the intention of this record and I can respect that, and it doesn't take away from the record being incredibly solid, immediately catchy, excellently performed, and well-written to boot. For me, it's an easy 8/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan of this brand of neotraditional country. For modern country fans, this is definitely on the less 'cool' side of the genre, but who the hell should give a damn about country being 'cool'? And besides, the way Texas and red dirt country is growing, I reckon it won't be long before we get more of this radio. Cycles like this have happened before, it's just a matter of time.

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