Ethyl & The Regulars,
Fill 'Er Up
(Sweet Crude, 2009)

Two Tons of Steel,
Not That Lucky
(Smith Entertainment, 2009)

"What happened to country music?" the question goes. You hear it all the time. Here, my friends, is the answer:

About two decades ago, one form of it -- the kind produced for mass consumption in Nashville's music factories and aired on mainstream radio stations with ever shorter playlists for listeners with ever briefer attention spans -- became, inevitable honorable exceptions (George Strait, Alan Jackson) aside, something that really ought to be called Southern pop. Almost all of it has devolved into icky paeans to true love, with the occasional jingoistic rant thrown in to relieve the tedium. Some observers whom one would not expect to do so defend it. Though I would not insist they are entirely wrong (on the other hand, maybe I would), I am not among them. Maybe the problem is that this sort of product is still referred to as "country" music. Judged as such, it will nearly always come up wanting.

Of course, except in the early days of the mountain string bands and banjo balladeers, "country" music was always as much urban (white, of course) blue collar as rural. Jump blues, a slick (and African-American) big-city cousin to the downhome variety, had as much to do with driving the rhythms of the sort of country that's now thought of as "traditional." At first resisted fiercely by the hillbilly recording industry (an all-but-forgotten historical footnote), rock 'n' roll was integrated into country in fairly short order. Nothing wrong with such a process; in fact, this hybridization was the product of a natural evolution of Southern vernacular sounds. The best "traditional" country has embraced them all, along with classic pre-rock pop.

If you want to know where country music by that definition went, the answer is: nowhere and everywhere. I manage to hear it all the time, and as little of the other as I am able to keep my ears shielded from. Neo-traditional country flourishes particularly in regional scenes, most visibly and audibly in Texas, which is where the San Antonio-based Two Tons of Steel, two decades old now, plays the bars and dance halls when it's not out touring Europe, where they still like real American music. Ethyl & the Regulars announce their presence, always a welcome one I have no doubt, on Denver's flashing neon signs. As carriers of hillbilly tradition, these two are far from alone, but they're the bands we happen to be heeding here.

It may be necessary to explain to you youngsters out there that the all-male Ethyl & the Regulars boast no female named Ethyl. Actually, some of you may not even be aware that once upon a time women were named Ethyl. In the old days of some of our youths, leaded gasoline came in two forms: ethyl (a premium blend usually selling for an extra 4 cents a gallon) and regular. There were, yes, lots of sweetly crude dirty jokes about "pumping Ethyl." In those days country music sounded like what Ethyl & the Regulars play: honkytonk, Western swing, rockabilly, bluesy electric guitars. Socially destructive practices such as cheatin', drinkin', fightin' and landin' in jail were freely celebrated, as often as not with shameless cornball wordplay.

A lot of that happens in E&tRs' music, both in the originals and in the coolly chosen covers (among them the obscure treasure "Drinkin' Canada Dry" and the folksong-turned-swing "Clementine"). The band's upright bass player, Donnie Jerome, contributes an original where, in the spirit of no apology whatever, he rhymes Texas with "solar plexus." Yeah, come to think of it, maybe you and I ought to find our way to Denver's honkytonk district and search out the joint where these guys are doing it tonight. I'll spring for the gas, you get the drinks.

I reviewed Two Tons of Steel's two previous CDs here (11 November 2006) when the band was signed to Chris Thomas's Palo Duro label. Not That Lucky, its first on Smith Entertainment, showcases what TToS -- named, by the way, after a restored '56 Cadillac -- does: roots-rock with a country accent. Well, of course I repeat myself; after all, what would roots-rock without a country accent sound like? TToS traffics in 1950s and '60s-style Southwestern rock 'n' roll, which means you can hear whispers (sometimes more) of the man who practically invented the genre, the late and forever great Buddy Holly. There's plenty revved-up blues, too, along with tears that fall copiously into tall glasses of cheap beer.

Lead vocalist/acoustic guitarist Kevin Geil writes seven of the 10 songs, with three covers of solid material from pros like Fred Eaglesmith, Tom Gillam and Monte Warden. Again, master Texas-roots producer Lloyd Maines, who drops his own acoustic guitar into four cuts, sits at the helm.

You won't complain. But if you decide you have to anyway, take it elsewhere, OK?

review by
Jerome Clark

22 May 2010

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