Jeff Griffith,
If It Ain't One Thing It's Another
(Arrowhead, 2007)

The kind of sound that singer Jeff Griffith and producer Joe Stampley -- himself once a country star -- lay down on If It Ain't One Thing may not be original, but it is so lovingly done that you won't mind. Or anyway, you won't if you're a fan of stone country music, of the sort that hasn't been heard on mainstream radio for a good (actually, bad) two decades.

In the 1980s the superb hard-country vocalist Randy Travis, whom Griffith cites as his model, spearheaded the New Traditionalist movement that revived older honkytonk styles with the cleaner, sharper production values that new technology had made possible. Some extraordinary songs (e.g., Travis's "On the Other Hand") came out of it, but in due course, after this embarrassing detour into actual music, Nashville moved on to what looks like a permanent infestation of witless, factory-issue Southern pop.

A young guy who grew up in rural Texas, Griffith is a natural-born talent with an aching, whiskey-edged baritone. On this, his first album, he bestows upon us 11 solidly crafted songs, the bulk of them unsparing tales of wounded human moments. It's the sort of stuff that is pretty much fraud-proof. Like the pioneers of this sort of deep honkytonk -- Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Bush -- Griffith makes it as real as life, no embellishments, no euphemisms. In so doing, he reminds us that the distance between sad song and personal pain in superior country performance always feels nonexistent. That's acting, of course, but as with any successful art, you on the receiving end of it let yourself be coaxed into the fantasy that it is not mere artifice. Griffith renders emotional resistance pretty much out of the question.

Not every song, of course, is a despairing portrait of a broken soul -- not that there's anything wrong with despairing portraits of broken souls, of course. There's humor, too, as in the title tune, and there are good times to be enjoyed along with the psychic agony. Not to mention a fair amount of good ol' horniness, a frequent (if infrequently remarked-on) theme in honkytonk music. But naturally, the best stuff is the barroom anthems where alcohol is consumed in excessive amount and heart- and marriage-breaking back-street affairs are plotted. I refer to songs such as the Whitey Shafer/Doodle Owens "It Was Always So Easy" and Wayne Carson's "Drinkin' Thing" (once a hit for the late Gary Stewart). Other songs, many written by Joe Stampley's son Tony Stampley in collaboration with various others, explore classic country subjects, among them the particularly harrowing "She Reminds Me of You."

"I'm Your Radio" (Tom Botkin, Kevin Denny, Billy Craven) tenderly recounts the comforts of an instrument that, sadly, now seems to have lost its capacity to deliver meaningful truths to us. Maybe, if we're lucky and today's country radio is not, as I fear, beyond all redemption, we'll hear Jeff Griffith's voice on it one of these days.

review by
Jerome Clark

26 January 2008

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