Mike Bella,
Lost in the Shuffle
(Five Star, 2005)

Oh, yeah, this is a good 'un. Hardcore honkytonk is in safe care and fine voice with Mike Bella. Lost in the Shuffle is just where you're going to want to lose your way if you love the hard stuff. It occasions pleasure from beginning nearly to end. It makes one wish -- let's upgrade that to hope -- that hardcore honkytonk music is on its way to becoming an enduring genre like bluegrass, surviving and thriving even without life support from mainstream radio. If, in fact, Bella were a bluegrass artist, he'd be a Karl Shiflett or a Larry Cordle.

Bella looks like a hat act, but he sounds like one only on the final, forgettable cut, with the bombastic, pumped-up electric guitar and hackneyed theme ("Country Nights") that render country-hits radio a vision of aural hell to many of us. Perhaps Bella was persuaded that he needed a single that might make it there. If so, the man was considerate about it; it is, as noted, the last cut.

But there is so much satisfaction delivered on the rest of the tracks that I fear I sound like an ingrate. Bella sings in front of a swinging band entirely in step with his vision of hillbilly heaven. Not himself a songwriter, he is a man of exemplary taste in other composers' work. There's a debt -- though not an overwhelming one -- to Buck Owens in his vocals, and there are two songs from Owens's catalogue. But that's OK. Supremely confident, Bella puts his own brand on them. He's good enough to tackle Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever" and not force you to draw comparisons to the Hag's classic rendition. A particular stunner is "Wild Side of Me," recorded in the 1980s by the forgotten, inexplicably underrated Dan Seals. Bella, who produces, shows his sure hand at nearly every turn.

Other stand-outs include Flatt & Scruggs' "Give Me Flowers" and Slugger Morrissette/Gary Jones' splendidly morose "Might As Well Stayed at Home." Bella proves that honkytonk's booze and blues live on, in all their woozy and heartbroken glory.

by Jerome Clark
10 December 2005