Starline Rhythm Boys, |
(Cow Island, 2007)
Like everything else, country music seems better in retrospect, and ever more so the greater the distance that stretches between it and us. While we remember the best and forget the rest, we ignore the truism expressed by the late science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: "Ninety-five percent of everything is crap."
If you're willing to dig through mountains of crapulence, you'll find that what's now called traditional country wasn't all Hanks and Merles and Lorettas. Country records in the untold thousands -- tens of thousands is more like it -- have been issued since the genre's invention decades ago. Even in what we think of as the mid-20th-century golden age, many were poorly recorded or arranged, many were cut by mediocre-to-nonexistent talents, and many showcased inferior material that ought never to have made it to wax. Mercifully, most of this stuff survives only in the recollections of country-music scholars, collectors and unusually obsessed fans.
Much sentimental affection is focused on the mid-1950s, when honkytonk and rock 'n' roll merged into the new genre of rockabilly. Rockabilly was more or less the creation of Elvis Presley and Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, and it exploded on record because young artists who otherwise would have dreamed of playing the Grand Ole Opry knew where popular music was heading, and it wasn't in that direction. Meantime, as pure country reeled from the rock 'n' roll juggernaut, established Opry stars, desperate to sustain careers, rocked up their music, as often as not dropping fiddles and steel guitars from their sounds in favor of hot rhythms and even, embarrassingly, teenaged sentiments.
Yes, not a romantic story. It's just show biz: a dash of creative clarity followed by a glut of imitative obtuseness. Sometimes, though, some pretty good music got made. If rockabilly's moment in mass esteem can be measured in near-entirety in a few months in 1957, it's been the template for a whole lot of superb, if commercially marginal, music ever since.
The honkabilly sound of the Vermont-based Starline Rhythm Boys is, I suppose, wildly romantic. Back in the late 1950s, when you could hear this sort of material on the radio, it was never consistently this good. The best songs were pleasurable indeed, the rest not so, often by a wide margin. So the Boys are more modern than they sound, the musical time travel surely not so defiant of the laws of conventional physics as might appear. But let there be no mistake: this is a preposterously enjoyable album, jam-packed with joyously performed hillbilly-fevered rock 'n' roll. If you love country music with Brylcreem slathered atop its head -- I'll bet you thought they didn't make that sort of thing anymore, didn't you? -- Red's Place is where you want to go, and as fast as you can get there. The beer's cheap, the glasses are tall and the women all have big hair.
The Boys -- at least as you'd see them in a New England bar -- are Danny Coane (acoustic guitar), Billy Bratcher (upright bass) and Al Lemery (Fender guitar). On the album a studio band fills out the sound with various instruments where appropriate, everything from fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin to drums, piano and horns. Even the more elaborately arranged cuts, however, keep to lean dance-hall rhythms, thanks to producer Sean Mencher's sure hand and, I'm sure, the Boys' firm guidance.
The bulk of the songs are from Bratcher's pen. They're never verbose, as fits the form (which doesn't encourage extended lines), but even when the themes are familiar ones (always), they don't feel cliched, either. The best of them -- there are no worst -- evoke fondly remembered passed-on friends, the closing of welcoming neighborhood bars, and even (in my favorite cut) "The Old Filling Station." Others are devoted to good times, drinkin', carryin'-on, and running afoul of the law for same (the hilariously over-the-top "Drunk Tank"). The non-originals include "Who," by renowned blues composer Willie Dixon, bluegrass hero Jimmy Martin's "The Joke's on You" and Cy Coben's tear-in-the-beer "Burning a Hole in My Mind," a 1967 hit for Connie Smith.
Was real country music this good? Well, sometimes, certainly. But from the evidence of Red's Place, I have no doubt that it's always good wherever the Starline Rhythm Boys are playing.
22 December 2007