Nancy Apple & Rob McNurlin,
River Road or Rail
(Ringo, 2005)

This old-fashioned, pretension-free CD brings together two genial talents, Memphis rockabilly/honkytonk performer Nancy Apple and Kentucky folksinger Rob McNurlin. Though McNurlin is technically a far better singer than Ramblin' Jack Elliott (to whom he's sometimes compared), writes many of his own songs and lays no claim to Elliott-level (which is to say world-class) eccentricity, he's clearly a kindred soul. Apple has a warm and irresistible Southern voice. The only way to dislike this record is to dislike hillbilly-flavored folk music on principle, and if you don't like that sort of thing, you'll want to be on your way. I'll feel sorry for you, though.

Except for a nice reading of the well-traveled "Lost Highway," written by Leon Payne but best known from the Hank Williams recording, the songs are originals by Apple, McNurlin or both, supplemented by two exceptional compositions from -- I take it -- personal friends. One of the latter is Jeff Walburn's nightmarish "Lucille," not to be confused with the comparably titled Don Schlitz song and monster 1978 hit for Kenny Rogers. True, the two songs open with a similar premise; but then Walburn's lurches off in a direction so dark and scary that it makes the Schlitz heart-ripper feel positively uplifting in comparison. Rather less unsettlingly, John Flavell contributes the moody cowboy meditation "Drover," which would fit easily into Ian Tyson's repertoire; one, or at least I, would be hard-pressed to speak greater praise.

Apple/McNurlin's own songs unearth novel ways to re-engage such familiar folk and country subject matter as rambling, homesickness, honkytonk women, love, family, heartbreak and death. Apple's "Cathead Biscuits & Gravy" wittily relates an episode of road food and road sex. Her "You Said Goodbye -- by the San Juan River" is a folk equivalent of the sort of country duet George Jones and Tammy Wynette (or Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn) used to do to fiery perfection. McNurlin's "Chariot Wheels," a song that burrows deeper into you each time you hear it, finds a striking metaphor to represent a relationship's shifting fortunes. The title tune, another McNurlin creation, fills every expectation one might entertain of a piece whose title alone encompasses the foundational themes of a vast body of American ballads.

The two accompany themselves variously on acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica and accordion, augmented by a handful of other musicians handling fiddle, slide, mandolin and other downhome instruments. A certain Sparky Apple is credited with "tenor and baritone barking." All present, human and otherwise, acquit themselves admirably.

by Jerome Clark
24 December 2005

Buy it from