The Last Country Album
(Shuffle 5, 2007)

On first hearing The Last Country Album, I thought, "At last -- unhyphenated country!" The second thought reminded me that the concept is absurd and impossible. There is, after all, no such thing as unhyphenated country music. Country music, a genre whose origins in commercially recorded Southern folk music go back to the 1920s but which didn't get its current name until three decades later, covers an impressive range of styles. That's why nobody has ever been able to agree on a single definition. The most cynical like to say, "Country music is what gets played on country radio stations." Or maybe they used to say that, because all kinds of stuff formerly considered country personified does not get played on country radio stations. As for what does get played there these days ... well, let's just not go there.

As the title ruefully acknowledges, the sorts of songs played here barely exist in today's Nashville mainstream. You can still hear them preserved, however, on independent record labels and self-issued discs and by committed singers and bands performing in regions where the style still finds an appreciative audience. For example, Texas, which is where Heybale hails from.

These five guys, all veterans with impressive credentials, bring top-drawer talent to the project and so engender comparably high expectations from the informed country listener. Let's not belabor the point: they are all met. It is inconceivable that anybody who's grown up on unadulterated honkytonk music won't fall in love at first lick, a gloriously familiar one from electric guitarist Redd Volkaert, who had a whole lot to do with helping to define the sound of Merle Haggard's magnificent Strangers band.

Last showcases Texas shuffles, Bakersfield rhythms and the best of circa-1960s Nashville, incorporating them into a dozen cuts, where the covers and the in-the-tradition originals -- all reveling lovingly in venerable country subject matter: ramblin', drinkin', heartachin' -- are of equal esthetic strength. Actually, unless you know the older songs (un-hackneyed choices from the catalogues of Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Ray Griff and Fred Rose), you won't be able to tell which is which. Lead vocalist Gary Claxton's "California Wine" is a dead ringer for an early Merle Haggard tune, and man, that is praise. Pianist/vocalist Earl Poole Ball also contributes some hard-hitting honkytonk numbers, not the least of them the terrific "Livin' in a Cheap Motel." Bassist Kevin Smith, formerly associated with the Austin rockabilly outfit High Noon, tours with Dwight Yoakam. Tom Lewis, a no-nonsense country drummer, rounds out the core band. Four guests join the party, including the always reliable steel and dobro picker Cindy Cashdollar (yes, she was born with that name).

I must register one complaint, though. OK, Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" is one fine song. But since this is, after all, The Last Country Album, why not Hall's "The Last Country Song"? Well, I suppose you can't have everything.

review by
Jerome Clark

19 July 2008

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