Jay Boy Adams,
The Shoe Box
(Rockin' Heart, 2006)

It's fitting that Jay Boy Adams should choose to revive Jesse Winchester's 1978 song "Showman's Life," and not just because these two rooted singer-songwriters are both, well, showmen. Adams actually sounds a bit like Winchester -- born in Memphis, long a resident in Montreal -- if Winchester had been raised in West Texas. If Adams lacks Winchester's exquisite melodicism, he matches him in his seamless integration of folk, rock, blues, country and gospel into a coherent, engaging musical style.

A contemporary of Winchester's, acoustic guitarist Adams started out in the late 1960s and early '70s. In 1978 and 1979 he recorded a couple of albums for Atlantic but in 1982 left the music business. Sixteen years later, he returned, not to record for himself but to play with country-rock-soul guitarist Lee Roy Parnell and to produce and manage other artists. In time he started writing again, and The Shoe Box, the happy result, recently spent weeks close to the top of the Americana charts.

It is not an extravagant, wildly ambitious recording, but it's a good one, solid, sturdy and assured, the work of a pro who prefers cooking simple but tasty dishes as opposed to fancier, more complicated cuisine. Adams offers up small, perfectly told stories of life's adventures (and two or three tragedies), some of them true, in the small-town Southwest and sets them mostly in rocked-up country-folk arrangements. It's an easily recognizably Texas alternative-country sound, but you can't call it derivative, because Adams was among those who pioneered it along with fellow (and still active) pickers Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen and others.

Besides the originals and the above-mentioned Winchester tune, Adams cuts an electrified, propulsive version (taking its inspiration from Son House's distinctive reading) of the traditional "John the Revelator," joined by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson on vocals. Marty Stuart contributes mandolin to "From Mississippi to Abilene," a melancholy reflection on the life and death of bluesman Dewitt Bender. Parnell sings a duet with Adams on "Showman." The final song, "Water for My Horses," is not to be confused with the memorable, if obscure, Hoyt Axton outlaw ballad, which feels as if it could have been sung in the Old West. Adams and band put together a blues under that title -- blues, which didn't exist in those days, was something nobody ever heard of on the Western frontier -- but it's good fun anyway.

review by
Jerome Clark

16 June 2007

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