Gene Butler Band,
Concrete Country
(VAVV, 2006)

Bill Wence,
Songs from the Rocky Fork Tavern
(615 Records, 2007)

Since 1980, Bill Wence, a native Californian who had been playing music professionally since the 1950s (both on his own and in stars' bands), put together a radio-promotion company out of Nashville. The company, which proved a success, continues to this day. Though no longer a road musician, he's still a songwriter and occasional recording artist. Songs from the Rocky Fork Tavern unites him with a bunch of no-longer-young Nashville contemporaries, counting among them such notables as Becky Hobbs, Charlie McCoy, John Wesley Ryles and the Jordanaires, to revive the country-radio sound of the 1970s.

It's a strange thing, but that music sounds better to my ears than it did back then. With the inevitable exceptions, '70s country didn't seem very country to me. Compared to most of what came after, though, it could as well have been Hank Williams and Webb Pierce. Which, of course, it wasn't. As Robbie Fulks, singer-songwriter and country-music scholar, has observed, the Nashville music of that decade mirrored the movement of its once-rural/small-town audience to the Southern suburbs. That meant a larger pop presence, a more conventionally romantic sensibility (in other words, "honkytonk girls" were now -- gratingly and now even more datedly -- "ladies"), and fewer fiddles and steel guitars. Even acoustic guitars tended to be buried deep in the mix. It took me -- and hardly me alone -- awhile to figure out that you could make good music out of these elements. It didn't hurt that many of the performers and composers were clearly listening to African-American soul balladry as well.

All of this is to be heard in Wence's enjoyable CD, which is country and pop in equal measure, able to transform even the air-head ditty "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" -- a 1972 hit for the forgotten one-hit-wonder Looking Glass -- into a pleasure, if yet a guilty one. No guilt, however, is attached to appreciation for Wence's recreation of the Marvin Rainwater classic "Gonna Find Me a Bluebird."

Most of the songs are Wence's originals, and they show a confident craftsman at work. A bonus is the thoughtful liner commentary by my friend James Talley, whose excellent recordings you ought to check out while you're looking up Bill Wence's.

The Gene Butler Band, which works out of Los Angeles, features a harder strain of country. Butler, who writes and sings all of the songs, grew up in Georgia but moved to Seattle in his mid-teens. The sound he creates is a synthesis of Southern and West Coast country, perhaps informed by folk music (the opening cut, "Momma, Wish I'd Listened to You," is all quotes and paraphrases from traditional songs). Butler possesses a craggy, soulful voice that sounds like his face looks: pure blue-collar. Not much soft is to be found in Concrete Country (a title with at least two levels of meaning), and it matters not that the man responsible, no hillbilly off-stage, is an actor and independent-film director.

Among the musicians are ubiquitous alt-country hipsters Lucinda Williams and Gurf Morlix, but Butler's approach is hardly alternative, or at least it wouldn't be if today's music industry weren't so relentlessly antagonistic to intelligence, taste and emotional authenticity. Where pop would be inserted into a more mainstream (i.e., modern Nashville) act's muse (surely too highfalutin a word), Butler turns to rockabilly; note, for example, the modified Bo Diddley beat in "Love's the Real Thing," which deserves less saccharine lyrics. Still, on the whole the only sweet to be heard in this sound is bittersweet. And the lovely, chilly "In This Lonesome City" is a memorable addition to the small and eminently worthy sub-genre of country-noir.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

29 March 2008

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