James Carothers,
Honky Tonk Land
(Renegade Mountain, 2014)

Country music is typically defined as what gets played on country radio. If that's so, today's country is no more than a bland, formulaic pop genre of solely anthropological interest to discerning listeners. Lately, though, there have been stirrings, so far faint but slowly growing, of a revival of "traditional" country, perhaps best defined -- on at least the immediate level -- as what doesn't get played on country radio. Beyond that, the concept of tradition in country is itself problematic (and not only there, of course). Still, I know from long exposure to the music that "traditional" is applied to stuff that I am ordinarily pleased to hear.

Tennessee-born, New Mexico-based James Carothers is being marketed as a traditionalist. The songs on Honky Tonk Land, an eight-cut, all-original extended-play disc, name-check the greats: Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings. Carothers sings with a tough-guy baritone that at various moments recalls Jennings, Hank Williams Jr. and the nearly forgotten David Allan Coe. The latter three are figures from the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s, launched in opposition to business as usual in Nashville (i.e., the traditional sounds and production techniques). Now, that movement is seen as having saved country as a commercial art form and laid the foundation for the New Traditionalist acts of the 1980s.

Let there be no mistake: Carothers is shooting for radio play. The production, in the form of fat electric guitar chords and pounding rhythms, isn't as far from the mainstream sound as, say, Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger was from everything else going on in country four decades ago. There's plenty of contemporary rock in the mix, and pretty much everything is amped up. "She's Too Crazy" doesn't pretend to be traditional, or even country by broad definition. What makes Carothers worth hearing is that his songs aren't dumb. He tells stories of the sort that, in one production context or another, have been at the core of the most bedrock hillbilly music.

Also he's funny. The opening cut, "New Country Singers," hilariously enumerates everything that's wrong with current country, all to establish his own authenticity by comparison. And that claim to authenticity is also rendered tongue in cheek, the joke being that this is what every jackass faux-country singer can be counted on to do. Carothers is an unusually smart and self-aware performer, and it will be interesting to track his career from this point on. If there is to be a new New Traditionalism, it would be fine if it sounds something like James Carothers and Honky Tonk Land.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 March 2015

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