Bobby Earl Smith,
Turn Row Blues
(Muleshoe, 2005)

Like many rooted Texas musicians, Bobby Earl Smith is better known in the Lone Star State than elsewhere, a veteran of bands (Freda & the Firedogs, Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys) that kept the flame of pure country going even as it was dimming to an uncertain flicker in Nashville. The sound on this splendidly accomplished recording brings to mind the words of another, more widely recognized Texas artist, Guy Clark, who wrote "Stuff That Works": The kind of stuff you don't hang on the wall/ Stuff that's real, stuff you feel.

Aside from a brief e-mail exchange, I don't know Smith (who in middle age holds down a day job as an Austin attorney), but I imagine that he may get tired of this kind of praise. Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski's liner notes sound the same theme, I notice. But you just can't help it. It's Smith's warm, friendly, intimate voice, those unfailingly melodic songs and uncomplicated lyrics about basic human emotions. He doesn't make me wish, as a lesser talent might, that he were more ambitious in his storytelling or farther reaching in his metaphors. It doesn't hurt, either, that dobro duties are divided between two musical giants, James Burton and Lloyd Maines, all the proof one needs that Smith commands the respect of the very best in the business.

In some senses Turn Row Blues amounts to an almost idealized vision of country music, like something you're more likely to dream than to hear. It's stripped down to mostly acoustic arrangements, unobtrusive and tasteful percussion, and not a note or sound or a whisper more than the song needs. Smith is responsible for nine of the 13 cuts, and not one makes you wish it weren't there. Here and there, a song (e.g., the engaging title cut) is wrapped as much in downhome blues as in trad country, though it's blues on Smith's terms, which means it feels like part of a deceptively casual, natural musical language in which only a mature musician could hope to be conversant or would dare to speak. One suspects that if he were of a mind, Smith could cut one hell of an acoustic-blues disc.

Another of his originals ("Straight Down in the Middle," framed in Warren Hood's amiably unshowy fiddling) feels like an Irish folk tune on its way to Cajun Louisiana. Though as a matter of principle I favor positive love but detest positive love songs, I concede that Smith has a genuinely moving and creatively imagined PLS in "Fixin' to." It doesn't sound anything like a Hallmark greeting card.

Neither, for that matter, does fellow Texas singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes' "Just One Love," one very pretty song whose lilting melody lingers in the mind. Stonewall Jackson's "Don't Be Angry" gets a more laid-back treatment than Jackson's own fierce, deep-hillbilly attack. I don't know if the world needs another cover of the Rick Nelson hit "Poor Little Fool," but if it's the closest thing to a throwaway cut here, well, it'll make you smile, and if you're of a certain age, it'll call up some memories you may not know you had.

by Jerome Clark
11 March 2006