Dave Insley,
Just the Way That I Am
(Dir, 2016)

Honkytonk is the soul of country music. It's what fans mean when they speak wistfully of "traditional" country. While these days something marketed as country is hugely successful in the commercial sense, it is qualitatively different from what you'd hear on a country radio station in the middle of the last century. Honkytonk, a made-for-jukeboxes style documenting (in good part anyway) the thoughts and actions of boozers in barrooms, is easily ridiculed by the ignorant. To those of us who love it, it's an honest music with a tough, unsentimental (but not wholly humorless) perspective on life as actually lived by ordinary people who turn to alcohol to escape their problems, only to generate new ones.

At the moment there are rumblings that Nashville may be opening up again to traditional country, last prominent in the Music City mainstream in the 1980s, but we need not hold our collective breath. In or out of fashion, honkytonk thrives as a regional music in the place where it was invented, which is Texas. At times Dave Insley, based in Austin, even sounds a little like Ernest Tubb, a Texan and the first great honkytonker, an influence on everybody from Hank Williams to Willie Nelson. Many current trad-country singers are more likely to take their cues from Merle Haggard. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but maybe Insley's historical memory just runs deeper. The occasional, well-placed use of trumpet, however, affords a tasty, if unobtrusive, r&b vibe that pushes the music past its early roots.

Just the Way That I Am evokes the familiar pleasures of pure country, faltering only in the family-friendly "We're All Together Because of You," which for all its undoubted sincerity serves only to raise in unwelcome memory the sappy, otherwise-forgotten Bobby ("Watching Scotty Grow") Goldsboro. Let me be clear: I don't hold this against Insley. Love of family is a positive thing, obviously. Unfortunately, honkytonk always has problems when it tries to celebrate positive things. That's why there are hardly any worthwhile positive country love songs.

Just the Way is more at home away from home, in the saloon where gloomy reflections are entertained and sexual temptation, even with unhappy consequences certain to follow, lurks. In that regard Insley's "Dead & Gone" has the best opening line I've heard in some time: "My wife and my girlfriend met at my funeral." The song that follows is worthy of it, too. Sparkling originals like "Win-Win Situation for Losers" and "Call Me If You Ever Change Your Mind" attest to Isley's mastery of the form. The album opens with "Drinkin' Wine & Staring at the Phone," an irresistible shuffle that reminds you that honkytonk is as much for dancers as for drinkers.

Perhaps the most impressively original Insley song provides a counterpart to the late Marty Robbins' famous "Big Iron." "Arizona Territory 1904" tells the story from the doomed outlaw's perspective. It has a nice twist at the end, too.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 April 2016

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