Bill Noonan,
The Man That I Can't Be
(Catawba City, 2009)

My disillusionment with "Americana" music dawned only -- as always -- slowly. One day, long after it should have, the realization came to me that the average self-identified practitioner/critic/fan is only marginally more likely than any other pop-music consumer to know who Roscoe Holcomb, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Charlie Feathers were. "Roots," in short, usually turn out to run no deeper than the guitar-rock and country-pop of a decade or two or three ago. When a review CD arrives in my mail, the phrase's employment in the accompanying promo material is insufficient in itself to turn listening into anything urgent.

As I hear Bill Noonan, though, I am reminded of what I once thought an Americana genre would be about. Yeah, there's guitar rock here, but it's better than the generic stuff. One reason is that Noonan (a leading figure in the Charlotte, N.C., music scene, which includes my friend and sometime songwriting partner David Childers, who contributes vocal support here) is an older guy who's taken in a whole lot of music and living. The songs not only ring true but attest to influences from America's rich vernacular strains -- folk, country, r&b, rockabilly, bluegrass, Roy Orbison-style melodic pop -- integrated into a whole suited to Noonan's distinctive approach. It helps, too, that Noonan is a gritty, compelling singer and an exceptionally expressive songwriter.

The Man That I Can't Be opens with "Road 99," a song Johnny Cash would have admired, and not simply because it's almost certainly a tribute. It captures the rocked-up rural sound that, if Cash didn't invent, he managed to shape into a uniquely personal statement. But "99" is no rote Cash recreation. It's a Noonan tune that, in the manner of the master himself, creates something new out of something that was already there.

A later cut, "Southern Song," draws its inspiration from another gifted, albeit much less known, rooted singer-songwriter, Steve Young, who has also been known to fuse country, folk and r&b with fervent, albeit unsentimental, affirmation of regional identity. In the closer, one of the album's two acoustic cuts, "Ramblin' Boy Blues," Noonan rearranges parts of traditional songs (notably "Rake and Rambling Boy" and "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane"), dropping Jon Thornton's trumpet into the arrangement in a way that recalls the collaboration of Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong. The second acoustic piece is an easygoing, bluegrassy arrangement of the late Gene Clark's "Tried So Hard."

Some songs give the impression of having been ripped from real-life hard times, for instance the break-up ballad "Money Girl," a riveting narrative tied to a strong melody. "Wasn't Mean to Be," just as raw in sentiment and performance, packs punch in both the musical and metaphorical sense. "Lonesome Blues," on the other hand, exudes the spooky, etheric aura of a folk song from the spirit world.

Listeners who grew up in the 1960s will recognize a synthesis of sounds from an era when much of mainstream popular music was comfortable with where it came from and didn't bother to hide it even as it set about fashioning something fresh. In this appealing, accomplished album, Bill Noonan has the grown-up strengths of one who's lived and listened hard, and who does not speak falsely.

review by
Jerome Clark

25 July 2009

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