Byron Hill,
(BHP, 2004)

Well, here's a surprise. That it's an album of commercial country songs by a successful commercial country songwriter is not the surprise. The surprise is how good this is. Not that commercial country songwriter is a dishonorable profession; think Bob Miller, Floyd Tillman, Harlan Howard, Justin Tubb, Bobby Braddock, Ray Pennington, Tom T. Hall ... well, the list goes on and dizzies with pleasant memories. It's just that over the past couple of decades the Nashville's Music Row has turned out sludge, mostly. Songwriting there seems little more than a maddeningly incessant recycling of the tried and tired: treacly love songs, jingoistic rants, banal affirmations and good-ol-boy (or -girl) posturing. Sentimentality oozes like a mighty flood of syrup drowning all in its path.

Yet sometimes, when a song is rescued -- which is to say placed in an intelligent setting where melody and lyrics are served by something other than rote -- one is startled into the realization that at least some of these songs were actually fairly decent when they were written. Nobody who listens to Ramblings will have any problem imagining them fattened into radio-play obesity. On the other hand, Byron Hill's sharp, electricity-free arrangements lead even the most doubting listener to the unthinkable: yes, the finest commercial writing in Nashville produces songs not conspicuously inferior to the classic compositions that defined country in its golden age.

Ramblings is all Hill songs (most of them co-writes), chosen from his massive catalogue because they were, he explains, among the most personally meaningful. The pleasure is ours. Hill delivers the songs in a dusty baritone that on occasion calls to mind such masters of lyrical intimacy as Merle Haggard and Alan Jackson. The production is cleanly acoustic and crisply orchestral, with guitars, mandolins, harmonicas, drums, dobros and fiddles moving his reflections on life, love true or untrue, and the musician's lot. Even the unpromisingly titled "Wings of Your Love" soars, however improbably.

The simple word "heart" has been so abused and overused in lazy Nashville writing in the last few years that by now its appearance can induce rashes. And yet Hill's "Bad for the Heart" is among the most fulfilling pure-country songs I've heard this past year. You might say Hill is a hack in the best sense of the word. Maybe a better -- certainly more polite -- way to express it is this way:

Hill underscores a point that Nashville's recent history has done all in its considerable power to obscure: that songs can be commercial and meaningful. I can't say I'd want to hear the cuts on Ramblings done as some pretty-boy hat-act would do them. (Actually, one song here, "Traditions," hints that Hill wouldn't either, though presumably he'll still accept the royalty checks.) But as Hill does them -- with soul, sincerity and fabulous pickers -- they will knock you out.

by Jerome Clark
20 January 2007

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