Wailin' Elroys,
Route 33
(Rhythm & Bomb, 2005)

When most people who know anything of the genre's history think of 1950s country, they remember Hank Williams and Webb Pierce. These seminal artists created the hard-core honkytonk sound that, long after, remains the common definition (affectionate or derisive, depending on the speaker) of country music.

Actually, the 1950s country scene -- not solely Nashville-centered as it would be in more recent decades -- was richer and more complicated than that. There was honkytonk, and plenty of splendid specimens of same, but other styles were also in ubiquitous evidence. Hillbilly boogie, which had its genesis in Western swing, was evolving into rockabilly. Bluegrass, born out of mountain string bands, blues and jazz, was fashioning what at the end of the decade Alan Lomax memorably described as "folk music with overdrive." So-called saga songs -- ballads about figures and events in American history -- anticipated the folk craze just then turning the corner onto pop's main street.

In common with their contemporaries Wayne "The Train" Hancock and Hank Williams III, of whom they will remind knowledgeable listeners more than mildly, the Athens, Ohio-based Wailin' Elroys recreate the rhythmic end of hillbilly fusion, restoring a nearly forgotten moment from a period that music historians are more likely to recall as the decade that gave birth to rock 'n' roll. In fact, the rock 'n' roll revolution decimated rival pop genres, perhaps none more so than country (which, of course, eventually recovered by softening its sound and repackaging itself as adult pop). Ironically, rock 'n' roll was as much a product of raw country as of downhome blues and r&b. As one listens to revivalist performers like the Elroys -- as well as, of course, the source recordings that inspired them -- one has no trouble connecting those dots.

Nearly everything here, however, is an original song, written in the tradition by the band's vocalist and acoustic guitarist Bram Riddlebarger. The other Elroys are electric guitarist "Preacher" Zeb Dewar, lap-steel player Johnny Borchard and stand-up bassist Justin Rayner. Yup, no drums, which is the way it was before rock 'n' roll made percussion mandatory. Still, these guys rock and boogie (and slow down to honkytonk) nicely behind Riddlebarger's chewing-tobacco-stained vocals, conjuring up good times and (more often) bad, not to mention hot rods, freight trains, jumpin' juke joints, heartaches and (not unrelated to the just-stated) excessive alcohol consumption. I don't mean to imply this is all one fat ol' goofy cliche; Riddlebarger, who has an elegant way with a lyric, saves it from that fate. Consider the first verse of "Break from the Line":

It's OK to sit around and not do a damn thing
To pass your time staring out
Wondering what the world will bring.
The world will turn and pass you through
And wonder what you're doing.
You're sitting around thinking
That this whole damn world is ruined.

Now, that's good writing -- recognizable human sentiments expressed with simple eloquence and genuine feeling. Route 33 may be unapologetically backward-looking, but if you like real hillbilly music, you'd be a sour human indeed to find much -- or, really, anything at all -- to complain about.

by Jerome Clark
18 February 2006

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