A good week for country music- Todd Grebe, Rex Hobart, & Malpass Bros reviews   Leave a comment

Some weeks give me hope for country music. This is one of them.

I long ago gave up on the mainstream country industry’s ability to offer up anything that I am likelyuntitled to enjoy, or even recognize as ‘country,’ and that is okay. Times change and so do tastes. Having surrendered the hill on the Next Great Credibility Scare coming along, I figured long ago that if Joy Lynn White can’t have hits, I need to look elsewhere for my kind of country.

If you are reading Fervor Coulee, most likely you know there is no shortage of acts producing music that more closely resembles ‘country’ than it does Def Leppard or Aerosmith.

Chris Stapleton, (who I am not reviewing today), Nashville songwriter and former lead singer of The Steeldrivers, is just one very fine example of folks who are making an attempt to produce contemporary country music that will resonate with those who know their Billy Joe Shaver from their Luke Bryan. That the Stapleton album debuted on the Billboard Country chart at #2 this week is simply splendid.

With a longer track record of middlin’ success, Dwight Youkam’s Second Hand Heart (also not reviewed) is also a good country album, if—like several of his albums—uneven. And while Yoakam puts the guitars and drums way up in the mix throughout the disc, Waylon Jennings often rocked the same.

If you are looking for something a bit off the trail, consider Calgarian Tom Phillip’s recent release, Mr. Superlove, for a set of songs you may not have ever considered to be country songs.

There is a lot out there to discover—you just have to make the effort.

In the past several weeks, a few country albums have crossed my desk and each gave me a great feeling upon listening, the kind of feeling I will never get should I stumble across a Lady A, LBT, or FGL song. I don’t expect any of them to have the initial success of Stapleton’s Traveller, but I am confident that I will be pleased to listen to two of them again this weekend, next month, this coming autumn, and five years from now; the third gives me promise that better, more mature efforts are within the performers’ grasp.

Todd GrebeTodd Grebe & Cold Country has delivered a smoking, independent release this spring. Grebe, perhaps still best known as a bluegrasser with the latter days incarnation of Bearfoot, spent a few years honing chops in Nashville and has emerged as a formidable honky tonk country bandleader.

Singing within a range not unfamiliar to Robert Earl Keen, Grebe’s original material is most definitely hardcore country and the arrangements on Citizen are replete with considerable aching fiddle (former Bearfoot Bluegrass mainstay Angela Oudean),) whining steel (from guest Steve Hinson,) and ticky-tack Tele courtesy of Nathan May. Without doubt, Larry Atamanuik knows his way around a country kit and he and Mike Bub keep things between gravel-lined ditches.

Co-produced by Grebe and bassist extraordinaire Bub, Citizen finds Grebe and Cold Country anchored down in Anchorage but recording in the home of country music, Nashville. The production values are high and while one might expect to hear this type of music played this well nightly on Lower Broadway, I’m betting it doesn’t actually happen frequently.

How often does an album start with lyrics as uncompromising as “I love you so much, if you killed someone, you could call me up, and I’d help you find a place to hide the body”? Well, that is how Citizen’s lead track “Criminal Style” (recently appropriated by fellow country climbers Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys) kicks off, without irony and with more than a little bit of that Shaver (Nelson, Jones, Paycheck) spirit.

If one can’t sing along to “Box of Wine” and “Let’s Make Love for Christmas” with some genuine connection, one likely needs to start living just a little more recklessly. Not everything is frivolous, of course, and Grebe mines deeper emotions with tracks including “More Than A Love Song” and “Living A Lie.” “Brown Hair,” the album’s only new song not penned by Grebe (it comes from Travis Zuber,) packs emotional punch punctuated by Oudean’s spot-on fiddling leads.

Available online at http://www.toddgrebe.com/home, Todd Grebe & Cold Country deliver the kind of music you just might be looking for if you have Bobby Austin, Tony Booth, and Mr. Haggard on your shelves.

Rex HobartThe most exciting album I have discovered on my own this month has to be an unexpected return from Kansas City’s Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys.

The first time I recall hearing the phrase, “Kansas City, MO” as an exclamation was sometime in 1987 when Bob Walkenhorst sang it out in “Rockin’ At The T-Dance.” I didn’t really consider what it meant until I travelled there to see the aforementioned Walkenhorst blow apart The Record Bar one evening in April, 2013. On that first visit of less than a week, I learned of the passion and pride found within those five syllables.

During my first afternoon in the city, wandering around Westport in the hopes of stumbling across The Record Bar, I found myself out of the spring sun and staring at a small poster announcing that Rex Hobart would be making an appearance at the club the very next evening: talk about serendipity.

I wrote about that show previously here at Fervor Coulee, and one of the highlights of that first trip to KCMO was the opportunity to catch Hobart playing his kind of country at The Record Bar. Hobart visited with me when it came to his attention that I had come a long way to see Walkenhorst the next evening, but I was equally pleased to catch him playing a gig; during that conversation, I found out what had happened to Hobart since 2005’s Empty House.

Hobart faded away from my consciousness after giving the road a good scare for several years while recording for Bloodshot and returned to ‘real life’ in construction and fabrication while continuing to play a bit in the Midwest; back a decade ago, I truly thought Hobart was about to break through: reading tea leaves has never been my forte.

If I might plagiarize myself, when I wrote about Empty House upon its release, I stated that I felt contemporary country music doesn’t often come stronger than Hobart’s blend of pedal steel rich, honky tonk shuffles and cry-in-your-beer weepers.  There wasn’t a lot of joy and happiness within Hobart’s tales of fragmented relationships; what were plentiful were fractured dreams, frustrated promise, and guys without a clue.  The lead track, “The Good Ain’t Gone” was the least pessimistic of the album’s songs, while the closer “Black Iron Bridge” was arguably the most finely crafted piece of songwriting; a dark, lovely song, this sparse number found Hobart rightfully taking his place among the finest country songwriters.  I was thinking that Hobart and the Misery Boys were gaining strength with each release.

Instead, they were falling apart and soon traded the road and insecurity for home and regular income. For more background, visit the Kansas City Star for Timothy Finn’s recent spotlight on the band.

As soon as I saw Long Shot of Hard Stuff on eMusic last week, I hit download: no hesitation.

Ten years on, the music presented by Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys hasn’t changed that much and to my ears pretty much picks up on the maturing sound of Empty House. Little wonder that their return has been celebrated within the KCMO music community.

The songs aren’t any cheerier—nor should they be—with salvation found at the bottom of a glass as frequently as in the arms of a lover. The production might be the most noticeable change from the past—things seem to be mixed more forthrightly, putting the instruments up front. The resulting sound has deeper resonance, but there is also a pleasant looseness to the proceedings—perhaps the pressure of being retro-revivalists—moving units, selling tickets, clamoring for limited airplay, and staying true to a well-established sound—has been removed.

The lineup hasn’t changed despite the extended layoff between recording sessions and they have maintained their impassioned approach to country music. There may be more going on instrumentally—it probably isn’t a coincidence that a confident cover of Willie Nelson’s “Shotgun Willie” is dropped in mid-set—but such doesn’t distract from the authentic core of their music. No pop overtones, no splash outside a glass of JD.

“Jones’n for Merle Haggard” is more than what you might expect of a shout-out to the masters of the genre (I counted mentions of eight greats of the 60s and 70s), while “Every Time He Breaks Your Heart” is more elaborate with some effects echoing though. “Here in Hell” would fit comfortably on previous Hobart releases—proof that there is no end to the stories that can be told from a bar stool—with “Gold Band On My Thumb” focusing on what happens when the honeymoon doesn’t quite work out…and the guy is left without a ride.

A Long Shot of Hard Stuff is a welcome comeback from Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys; here’s hoping it isn’t another ten years to the next round.

MalpassOn the cover of their new Organic Records album, The Malpass Brothers are made up to appear the unfortunate love children of the Osbornes, McCourys, and Jim Lauderdale.

So, they have the look. Without the music, though, they won’t go far. On Doyle Lawson-produced decidedly non-bluegrass project, the quickly reveal their core country bonafides. Seeped in the sound of the 60s and sporting the tagline “These guys don’t just sound retro, they are retro,” Christopher (lead and harmony vocals) and Taylor (ditto, along with electric guitar and mandolin) Malpass have created an album that sounds to have been recorded five decades ago; in this case, that is (mostly) a good thing.

While Grebe and Hobart prefer original material, the Malpasses are limited to two originals on this self-titled recording, not their first. The songs are largely from long ago, remnants of a rather narrow slice of country music’s expansive history. The songwriters will be familiar—among them Willie Nelson, Jack Clement, Hank Williams, Bill Anderson, and Bob McDill—but outside of “Hello Walls” and “It’ll Be Me” mostly less commonly encountered. Comparatively, Anderson’s saturnine “A Death in the Family” is a new song.

Lawson’s penchant for detail is readily apparent as the harmonies and instrumentation are perfect, not surprisingly a little too clean and demure for my tastes. Still the album gives me hope—the pair has considerable and readily apparent talents, and perhaps even vision when it comes to reestablishing the countrypolitan sound of Nashville’s heyday.

But what separates the Yoakams, Stapletons, Hobarts, and Grebes from these North Carolina brothers is the former grouping’s gravitas in assuming the mantle alongside their country music heroes. The Malpasses appear content to mimic country music’s passions rather than instilling it within their performances.

Which doesn’t diminish the achievements The Malpass Brothers showcase.

Their Hank Snow/Marty Robbins-influenced interpretation of songwriting legend Pete Goble’s new song “Here In Alberta I’ll Stay”—maybe the most despondent cowboy song about my home province since “Four Strong Winds”—is danged memorable.  Marty Robbins’s 1963 #1 “Begging to You” is stout, “Which One Is To Blame” goes back at least as far as the Wilburn Brothers and is provided a faithful recording, Hank, Sr.’s “Baby, We’re Really in Love” nicely swings, and the co-written original “I Found Someone to Love” is plaintive. All impressive.

The Mappass Brothers is a fine and hopefully not career defining recording. Should the brothers finds a way to write (or find) songs that expose contemporary audiences to the sounds  of yesteryear while creating music that is vital within a modern context—songs  that do more than reflect the past— they may find a larger audience clamoring for their music.

Three country music albums that I believe are worthy your time and money.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald



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