Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys,
Bar of Gold
(Cow Island, 2008)

Preacher Jack,
Pictures from Life's Other Side
(Cow Island, 2007)

Bill Hunt's Boston-based Cow Island label strives to keep the honkytonk sound alive. Not just any honkytonk sound, mind you. Just about alone of any American label I know of, it celebrates that moment in the mid- to late 1950s when country music and rock 'n' roll rubbed shoulders and electricity, virtual and literal, crackled. Make no mistake, in that golden era Cow Island's acts would have been judged country singers, meaning they would have performed in country venues and had their records spun on country radio stations. In that sense, though rockabilly is inevitably part of their sound, they aren't rockabilly artists as such.

It's a distinction meaningful, perhaps, only to those who know something of genre history as well as to those who've been around long enough to remember all this when it was new to the world. For the rest, here's the difference: Rockabilly was beat music, country narrative music. Consequently, for the former, lyrics amounted to primitive, rhythmic shouts (exhortations to dance, party, make out, drive fast), but the latter trafficked in adult experience and emotion, mostly -- albeit not invariably -- sorrowful. Put stomp and story together, or at least side by side when not joined at shakin' hip, and you've got something like Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys and Preacher Jack, or the Starline Rhythm Boys (whose Red's Place I reviewed in this space on 22 December 2007).

Inasmuch as I am wildly enamored of this sort of thing, it's a struggle to maintain objective critical distance whenever I hear it done even half competently. Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys, who hail from Baltimore and vicinity, are quite a lot more than half competent. If your ears crave that good ol' honkabilly sound, this band will give 'em what they need. On top of that, Hill is an able songwriter (all but one of the songs are his) whose compositions rock up the honkytonk and then slow the music down so that tear may trickle down cheek into brew. Some will draw smiles or even tickle belly laughs, since another tradition Hill and company honor is witty wordplay, as in "Bring Out the Bible (We Ain't Got a Prayer)" and "I Might Have Been a Lawyer (But I Couldn't Pass the Bar)," the latter the creation of band drummer Jack O'Dell.

Following the model of the original honkabilly bands, Hill & the Daddys are a trio. That's how you'd see them in their native habitat, the blue-collar bars of the Middle Atlantic states. For this recording, however, Dobro and steel (Dave Giegerich), fiddle (Heather Twigg) and other guitarists (Andy Bopp, Jim Stephanson, Pete Kanaras) fatten the sound on a few cuts. It all works to serve higher hillbilly purpose.

A seasoned player in the boogie-woogie tradition, Preacher Jack -- John Lincoln Coughlin when he's not behind the piano -- takes a low-key approach on these solo sessions from November 1982 and September 1996. Obviously, Jerry Lee Lewis is a significant influence -- for one fact among others, there's more than a little overlap in repertoire -- but Jack's roots also reach deeper to touch the masters Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and (especially) Albert Ammons.

A fixture of Boston and surrounding towns for decades, Preacher Jack plies his trade in strip joints, supper clubs, bars and stage, playing and singing can't-miss songs associated with Jerry Lee, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams (whom Jack insists on calling "Hank Williams Sr.") and the like. If not an original, he's undeniably a pro, and Pictures from Life's Other Side is an accomplished, workmanlike album replete with small but sturdy pleasures.

One of them, oddly, is not "Pictures from Life's Other Side," which is the title but not the title tune. "Pictures," a morose 19th-century ballad, has been recorded in folk and old-timey arrangements by the Blue Sky Boys, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and a host of others. Preacher Jack might have done something interestingly out of the usual with it.

review by
Jerome Clark

19 April 2008

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