Chris Jones,
Too Far Down the Road
(Little Dog, 2006)

For a relatively young man, Chris Jones boasts a long, impressive history in bluegrass. Bluegrass influences -- not to mention bluegrass artists such as Chris Hillman and Rhonda Vincent -- are in ubiquitous evidence all over Too Far Down the Road. His first recording for the Burbank-based roots label Little Dog Records, however, is no straightforward bluegrass exercise, rather a creatively conceived take on traditional country music.

It doesn't hurt that Jones croons in a charming, honey-soaked voice that at times recalls Merle Haggard's, at others Don Williams', and on occasion the two at once. Nor does it hurt that Pete Anderson, who arranged classic albums by Dwight Yoakam, sits in the producer's chair, fashioning musical settings and mixes that feel lush yet restrained, with instrumental approaches and harmonies woven smartly from strands of honkytonk, bluegrass and folk. But for infrequent passing reference, this is not the neo-Bakersfield sound at which Yoakam and Anderson excelled. In some ways it harks back to the bluegrass-country fusion recordings Ricky Skaggs was making in the latter 1970s, though Jones has no interest, one infers, in supplying electricity to bluegrass standards.

Jones wrote five of the 11 songs. Among the remaining six is the old Ronnie Milsap hit "After Sweet Memories," a gorgeous heartbreaker that Roy Orbison should have cut. Jones has the good taste to pick a song by the lamentably forgotten Autry Inman, who wrote some of the most melodic -- and most depressing -- country tunes ever, of which "She Once Lived Here" is a particularly pretty and gloomy instance. Jody Evans's "Chances" resurrects the sort of moody romantic rumination Gordon Lightfoot wrote and performed in his prime. It's always gratifying to hear a new Lightfoot number, even with the small qualification that Lightfoot didn't happen to write it.

One sometimes wishes, though, that Jones were exploring meatier themes than love's travails. Then the concluding cut, Dixie and Tom T. Hall's "Hero in Harlan," comes along, to narrate an unsparing tale of a luckless loser of a small-town kid who, all other options having proved futile, enlists, goes to war and returns home -- noticed at last -- in a box. Jones's brittle performance of this bleak little story is shattering.

As I've remarked elsewhere, the Iraq war -- which surely has done nothing else to enrich our lives -- at least has given new life to the old-fashioned protest song. "Hero in Harlan," which is about death but not heroism, cuts through the fictions of glory and tears the heart, as true a song of our time as our terrible time is likely to hear.

by Jerome Clark
3 March 2007

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