I love me a country concept album.
Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes.
Emmylou Harris’ The Ballad of Sally Rose.
Marty Stuart’s lost classic, The Pilgrim.
Tom Russell’s The Man from God Knows Where.
The Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera and—likely my first, Johnny Cash’s The Rambler.
Paul Burch’s Last of My Kind.
Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories and Mary Hott’s most recent Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning.
Even less ‘Concept’ than ‘concept’ volumes such as Rodney Crowell’s The Houston Kid and Rosanne Cash’s The River and the Thread.
All receive high marks from me.
Michelle and Jason Hannan have been inspired by Red Headed Stranger—Jason says he’s had the idea of creating a concept album since hearing the Willie Nelson classic as a teenager.
Balancing an identifiable narrative with memorable songs—ones that can work both in isolation and as part of a compelling whole—is no small feat, but the husband-and-wife duo, augmented by their One Blue Night compatriot and pedal steel wiz Howard Parker (and fiddler Shannon Bielski on a single track,) have done so in no small manner.
The timeworn tale of a broken heart leading to shattered lives, Cheater’s Waltz captures two strangers in circumstances rapidly spinning out of control. Utilizing original songs as well as the familiar “Before I Met You” and Eddie Adcock’s Country Gentlemen number, “The Sentence” (as part of the tale’s dénouement) to advance the narrative, the duo take lead vocal turns—until the story no longer allows—revealing the plot of these intertwined lives. An evocative reso-based instrumental from Parker—“Interlude: Loren’s Lament”—sets a pensive mood prior to the relationship’s challenges being revealed in “Here We Are In December” and “Livin’ On Barroom Time.”
The story is subtlety told for the most part, and the individual songs sufficiently strong to hold up to repeated exposure independent of those surrounding. Michelle Hannan, introduced to us via Domenic Cicala’s very impressive Come On Over: The Honky Tonk Duets, is an imposing vocalist as demonstrated on the album’s central songs, “If You Won’t Say It’s Over” and “Everything I’ve Got’s in Tennessee,” on which she holds back nothing: the pain of betrayal is contained within each of the song’s lines. Very impressive. Juxtaposing the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with the ostensible regret of “Everything I’ve Got’s in Tennessee” and the honest rancor of “Bourbon and a Broken Heart” is befittingly artful.
While the album’s instrumental corps is primarily kept to the central three, this is a full-bodied recording. Jason Hannan provides the majority of the sounds—a selection of guitars and basses, as well as mandolin and drums—with Michelle singing various parts with Parker singing the low harmony. The a cappella vocal trio “Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long” closes the album, bringing us to an undefined but apparent conclusion.
When one goes back and relistens to Cheater’s Waltz’s lead track, “Nothing Left to Lose,” one’s pain for the female narrator is that much greater: Loren, you could have thrived without him, just fine.
“I lost my heart and I lost my soul and I probably lost my mind,
But another two drinks and I just might think that its gonna work this time.”