Jason Boland & the Stragglers,
Somewhere in the Middle
(Smith, 2004)

"Produced by Lloyd Maines" is as close to a seal of quality as one is likely to find in Texas (or any other) country music. The Lubbock-born-and-bred and now Austin-based Maines, a multi-instrumentalist best known for his distinctive steel-guitar style (and, incidentally, as the father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines), knows how to make records that are anything but factory issue. Each Maines-produced record has its own personality, united only by ... well, maybe grittiness is the word. And you know he isn't going to bother with anybody who doesn't have what it takes to start with.

Jason Boland & the Stragglers is a young band -- Boland himself is 30 -- out of Austin's always amazingly outsized talent stable. (Boland grew up in Oklahoma City, but then every Austin musician comes from somewhere else.). The clear point of reference, though not the only one, in Somewhere in the Middle is Nashville's Outlaw movement, which in memory if not in reality defines country music's 1970s. The best of that moment is captured in the recordings of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. I don't hear any Willie here, but Waylon is all over the place.

The first cut, Aaron Wynne's "Hank," is a rockin' denunciation of, among other things, bland mainstream Nashville music, in the vein of Jennings's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" The sentiments are hardly original -- Nashville-bashing has been a staple of progressive-country songwriting since ... well, the just-mentioned tune -- but if you love what country music can do when it's permitted to, they never fail to speak to one's sense of simmering outrage. On the other hand, from what I hear of it (generally as little as possible), mainstream Nashville is relatively improved over what it was a few years ago, not that that would take a whole lot. In any event, this line grates: Gram Parsons used to sing about "The Streets of Baltimore." True, but that doesn't make him a hillbilly hero; he merely sang and recorded a -- to my hearing -- rather anemic cover of the Tompall Glaser/Harlan Howard song. It was Bobby Bare who made it a big country hit in 1966 and did it very well indeed. In my hardly sole opinion, it is one of the greatest country records ever.

But I pick nits, of which there are otherwise few to distract the listener as he or she sits next to this appealing record, crammed with solid songs and effectively realized performances. Boland, who wrote most of the cuts, handles themes both familiar and fresh with a pro's touch, and a nice but light-handed political subtext, pretty much the antithesis of the bloodthirsty nationalistic rants that have infested Nashville in the early decade of this wretched century. (A note here: "nationalistic" and "patriotic" are not synonymous adjectives and should never be treated as if they were.)

I like every song on this album, but none more than "Stand Up to the Man," not just for the rebel sentiment of the title but for its plea, in this age of finger-pointing fury, for tolerance of our fallible fellow humans. These lines choke me up every time:

I don't see the reason
For the politics and treason
We're riding the same rail that will take us home
And the world is just a boxcar
That'll take you anywhere you need to roam.

Exactly the right note. Somewhere in the Middle hits lots of them. Boland and his band play country music with a brain and a heart.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 11 June 2005

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