Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys,
Back on the Rail
(Cow Island, 2009)

Though their first recording, Back on the Rail is Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys' second Cow Island release. (Bar of Gold, which I reviewed here on 19 April 2008, was their second and first, respectively.) Originally self-issued in 2005, Rail documents the impressive chops of this Baltimore-based outfit -- consisting then of Hill (vocals, acoustic guitar), Dave Chappell (Telecaster) and Craig Stevens (drums) -- possessed even as it was coming out of the gate.

Anybody can discern immediately that both albums are the product of a single musical sensibility (Hill's), strongly influenced -- though not entirely defined -- by the sort of stripped-down hillbilly sounds of rocked-up country music half a century ago. But Rail is a trio album, while Bar's arrangements are augmented by fiddle, steel, dobro and guest guitarists, along with a new set of Daddys: Steve Potter on bass and Jack O'Dell on drums. Nobody would ever accuse Bar of being overproduced, but Rail gives those of us who've never seen the band in live performance (presumably in a venue where the liquor flows freely) a clearer sense of what the working configuration sounds like, or at least sounded like half a decade ago.

Between Rail and Bar, apparently, the band had begun to de-emphasize acoustic sounds driven by Hill's well-crafted lyrics and multi-layered stories. A particularly memorable example, "I Left Highlandtown," brings to mind the countrified folk of Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker. I'm sure Clark and Walker would be proud to have written this strangely disturbing, elliptically related narrative of a not very attractive character's disgruntled departure from a down-on-its-luck Baltimore district. On one level, "Based on Real Life" is the sort of harrowing portrait of an unhappy marriage in which George Jones & Tammy Wynette used to excel both in the fiction of their country songs and in the real life of their wedded relationship, but its lyrics would have been, I hesitate to say, a little too smart for them. On the other hand, "Fiction, fiction brought us to heel / We're based on real life but we're not for real" could well be about them.

But rockabilly and hip-shakin' shuffles, like the magnificent "Jackson Shake" and "Drifting In," are gloriously omnipresent as well. This sort of thing is a lot harder to pull off than it appears (the sound is "simple" only to those not listening closely), and Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys are never less than fully, fiercely in charge. They're one fabulous band, and Hill is a 'billy singer who delivers the narrative -- sad, bitter, wry, humorous or odd -- with absolute authority.

He is, moreover, a country songwriter of the first order. As a traditionalist in an age when mainstream "country" has devolved into an instantly disposable substance, he may be out of time, but he's never out of rhyme. And like the greats who came before him, he loves his wordplay. A hint: The album titles aren't really references to precious metals or trains.

review by
Jerome Clark

11 July 2009

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