Bobby Earl Smith,
Calling Me Calling You
(Muleshoe, 2017)

Most of what I hear these days from Austin's much-hyped scene stirs only modest resonance, if that, in my ears. Whatever regional distinctiveness it once had seems largely vanished. But a few decades ago, in its golden age, it was the counter-Nashville where country music, elsewhere on its way to the Southern-suburban pop-rock it would become, got a second shot at life and relevance, and a chance to revisit its Southwestern roots. In the late 1970s I discovered an album by Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys, a Texas band that seemed to represent everything country had ceased being. I played it a lot.

Bobby Earl Smith surfaced in the early days of the Austin scene and in the ground-breaking hippie-honkytonker band Freda & the Firedogs. When that band folded, Smith went on to serve as a Pleasant Valley Boy for a while. Back in the days when I was enjoying the Alvin Crow LP, I heard him, but the name on the credits, meaning nothing to me then, didn't stick. When I was exposed to Smith's Turn Row Blues (which I reviewed in this space on 11 March 2006), I made the connection. Crow himself appears on Calling Me Calling You contributing fiddle and mandolin, and "Flxible Flyer" (not a typo) recalls Smith's travels with Crow's outfit.

As did Turn Row, the new disc attests to Smith's Texas upbringing and to his lifelong immersion in the state's vernacular musical traditions. What Smith performs is a variety of country music (with the occasional Cajun and r&b flavoring) that might have been if the genre had developed organically and not been tied to the entertainment industry and to radio playlists. I guess that's one definition of folk, which also is an influence here. Along with James Talley's "Richland Washington," Smith's "Loaves & Fishes" may be the finest Woody Guthrie number that Woody didn't get around to writing. (As if to underscore the point, it quotes "Pastures of Plenty.") "Mercy Me Mercy My" addresses the question of what a Guthrie-John Prine collaboration might have sounded like. One peach of a song is the answer.

Gabriel Rhodes' production is at once pleasingly uncluttered and surprisingly imagined, affording the pleasures of grassroots instruments in service to elegantly unfiltered communication, the latter phrase easily applying to Smith's singing and writing. And that's not to mention his wry West Texas voice, with (at least in my hearing) a touch of Ernest Tubb's plain-spoken approach. (Few vocals have affected me as much as the one Tubb brought to "Rainbow at Midnight," which literally chokes me up every time. All ET is doing, though, is telling the story.) The closing cut, "Merry Christmas Texas Blue," which Smith composed with Joe Gracey, could be right out of the ET songbook; Smith's ear for melody is, let us say, finely tuned.

Calling Me Calling You is, moreover, topical and political. Not every cut, but maybe half, including the aforementioned "Loaves & Fishes." "Weapons of Mass Destruction" is not another takedown of Iraq War folly and bloodshed but a cry for domestic peace and an end to gun madness. (They are right here at home right under our very nose/ Weapons of mass destruction.) "Weapons" is actually two songs, the second of which -- it could be titled "My Town, Your Town" -- grieves for victims of the Newtown, Aurora, and other firearms massacres.

Besides working well simply as songs, "Sally Ring the Bell" and the title tune (this inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign) are suffused with a sadly out-of-style compassion for suffering Others: poor people, the homeless and refugees whom some current political figures have singled out for cruel contempt. I should add that Smith delivers the message without ever taking on the persona of a tiresome scold. He never feels like anything but a good-natured, good-hearted guy you'd like to know. Since most of us will never meet him, we can be grateful that he has a guitar and access to a recording studio.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 April 2017

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