Starline Rhythm Boys,
Live at Charlie-O's World Famous
(Cow Island, 2008)

The Vermont-based trio Starline Rhythm Boys and Bill Hunt's Boston-based Cow Island label are a perfect fit. Both are enamored of a moment in the history of country music and rock 'n' roll when the two genres spoke in a single -- loud -- voice. The result would be called rockabilly, whose time in the commercial limelight (in the mid-1950s) would be brief. It survives more as influence -- think John Fogerty -- than as independent genre. Most musicians who return to it (or reimagine it) are rock musicians, and the music they produce is so accented.

The Starline Rhythm Boys and their label (which hosts like-minded acts such as Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys), on the other hand, remind us that rockabilly is at least as much country as rock 'n' roll. The SRB's records -- I reviewed their Red's Place in this space on 22 December 2007 -- render unambiguously plain the truth that this is a hillbilly band. On this raucous, boisterous live outing, taped in a Montpelier, Vt., bar in front of an appreciative but not jarringly obtrusive crowd, the SRB put on display the sorts of covers only musicians who know their country-music history would have picked. The swinging rhythms, too, will inform listeners who care about such things that rockabilly sounds began in Western swing bands. Most important of all, the SRB turn the songs into SRB songs, by which I mean you won't be bothered with distracted thoughts about how much better the originals were.

I happen to love rockabilly more passionately than reason allows, and I am confident I would feel that way even if I hadn't been around (albeit as a little kid) when you could actually hear it on the -- which is to say AM -- radio. And I love it even more when it's a form of raw honkytonk, when rockabilly is less elemental rock 'n' roll than hopped-up country. Call it, as some do, honkabilly. And call the Starline Rhythm Boys my kind of outfit. They make music whose natural habitat is the barroom and the dance floor, and they do it with heart, soul, aplomb and chops.

I am prepared to argue that "Wine Me Up," a 1969 hit for Faron Young (who co-wrote it with Billy Deaton), has a firm claim on the title of best and purest honkytonk anthem of them all, and yes, I know the competition keenly well. The SRB's stellar version delivers delirium's drug -- in this dosage surely a near-lethal substance -- to my head. A few cuts in, we are introduced to steel player Kevin Maul, and that kicks in memories of a Minneapolis evening years ago when he, I, Dakota Dave Hull and Jim Watson (Red Clay Ramblers, Robin & Linda Williams's Fine Group) studied the dimensions of our common affection for giant-lizard movies. Besides possessing one of the world's most admirably droll senses of humor, Kevin (who lives in upstate New York) is one terrific player, a master of both steel and dobro, though the latter is unheard here.

The band's core is Danny Coane (acoustic rhythm guitar, vocals), Al Lemery (electric lead, vocals) and Billy Bratcher (stand-up bass, harmony vocals). Bratcher also does much of the band's writing, and he has a few cuts here, all of them first-rate, in-the-tradition numbers. As noted, however, most of the 23 cuts revive broadly familiar but not overworked songs from the classic-country repertoire, from the likes of Moon Mullican (the bawdy Jimmie Rodgers-style "Pipeliner Blues"), Merle Haggard (Liz Anderson's "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive"), Walker & Sullivan ("Live & Let Live") and more. There is a rousing version of "Gotta Travel On" (rewritten by Paul Clayton out of an old Southern folk song sometimes called "Big Ball in Memphis") as well as Steve Young's fierce drifter's ballad "Lonesome, On'ry & Mean" (memorably recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1973; Young's own version, though, is just as good).

Any record by the Starline Rhythm Boys will cure your honkytonk blues, and -- who knows? -- maybe even your hillbilly fever, your rockin' pneumonia and your boogie-woogie flu. Put Live at Charlie-O's World Famous on the player, and you'll be up and smiling in no time, on your way to a place where there's plenty of dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music.

review by
Jerome Clark

1 November 2008

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