Jason Boland has been a Red Dirt country mainstay since his emergence on the scene in 2001 with his backing band The Stragglers. Over the course of eight albums, Jason Boland and The Stragglers never strayed from a traditional country sound within the Red Dirt realm. Through a series of ups and downs in life, Boland has seen his songwriting process change with each season, but the veteran hasn’t stopped trying to perfect his craft.
“I think some of it, there for a while, made my songwriting worse or lacking. And then you get through it all, you either continue to work on your craft or find you a nice comfy place to be — and I think I really just tried to stay on the throttle of having something to say.”
And does Boland have something to say on The Stragglers’ newest studio effort Squelch. For those unfamiliar with the vernacular, squelch is the name of the knob on old CB radios that was used to mute the static coming through the speakers. Squelch is an album charged with social commentary and political nature of life in America today. The album’s first track, “Break 19,” follows down the same metaphor of radio lingo. Saying “break 19” or “breaker 1-9” was meant to signal to the message receiver that you wish to change the radio channel to 19. Boland’s song complains about the over saturated “news” in our culture. Lines like “the more I see, the less I claim to know” and “once you read between the lines you miss the days when you were blind” challenge the necessity and effectiveness of all information surplus.
Whether or not you’re a fan of politically charged lyrics, fans of tried and true country music will rejoice with the production on Squelch. Cody Angel, the newest Straggler and steel guitar player, provides some beautiful steel guitar rings in many of the songs. And fiddle driven songs like “The First to Know” will certainly make the country fan smile. Lyrically, the song works as more social commentary, this time for social media. The lyrics are ambiguous enough for listeners to draw their own conclusions, however. One is more likely to find political lyrics and social commentary like the songs on Squelch in punk rock and not necessarily traditional country music. Well, Jason Boland and The Stragglers bring out their inner punk rock for “I Guess It’s Alright to Be an Asshole.” The song is a loud, rowdy 2 minutes about crowning and praising people who act like assholes, especially if that person is a prominent figure in his or her field, like an athlete, for instance. “I Guess It’s Alright…” proves that Boland isn’t afraid to pull any punches with Squelch.
“Holy Relic Sale” steps away from the politics and leads Squelch down a more sentimental path. The song was inspired by Jason Boland’s wife and her lucky blue socks. According to Boland, he and his wife were in need of some good luck and found themselves enjoying a great day, only to learn that his wife mistakenly left socks at home. This mid-tempo song asserts that everybody, no matter who you are, will have their good days and bad. The sentiment continues with “Heartland Bypass.” This country journey song finds Boland urging his love to get out-of-town with him for an adventurous journey. The driving acoustic guitar and steel guitar work great to aid the journey feel of the song. The country rocker “Lose Early” is a song that seems to criticize the wealthy. The verses seem to paint pictures of greedy and selfish leaders while the chorus claims “getting by is not the best we can do.” It took me a few listens to truly get into the song, but the heavy hitting drums and fiddles stand out within the pounding production.
The band explores heartache with “Do You Love Me Any Less.” The man in the song asks his wife if her love for him changes when he leaves. “Do you think of someone else when you hear your favorite song? Do you love me any less when I’m gone?” This ballad features some great production from the piano, acoustic guitar, steel guitar and organ. Jason Boland’s vocal delivery is great on this song. “Fat and Merry” is another politically charged track about living a wealthy suburbia lifestyle. Boland sarcastically calls for a nice polished house in a safe neighborhood while the city gentrified the poor areas. The second verse of this song features my favorite line of the whole album: “we never meant to make worse ignorance is something hard to fake.” The song is the most obvious on the bunch in its social commentary delivery, but “Fat and Merry” is one of the top tracks on the album.
The ironically upbeat sounding “Christmas in Huntsville” features some of the darkest lyrics. Written by former Straggler fiddler Dana Hazzard and sung from a first person point of view, Boland sings as a man who’s on death row for a murder he’s been wrongly accused of. The song follows the inmate through his final day at Huntsville including his last meal and being injected. “Bienville” tells a tender love story about a traveling man who meets a traveling woman and falls in love. “All of my life I prayed I would find another lost soul with the travel in mind. The years spent wishing left me ill-prepared for the Bienville Hotel and the time that we shared.” It’s a touching song with a great waltzing production behind it. Squelch ends in a blaze of fire with “Fuck, Fight, And Rodeo.” This traditional country jam features quick fiddles and drum beats behind some punching political lyrics specifically complaining about the leaders. “Nothing’s ever gonna change with their kind running the show.” That’s as specific as Boland gets with who “their kind” is, but the points gets made that life is basically a rowdy mess of love and hate regardless of who is in charge.
Jason Boland is an honest writer and the lyrics on Squelch are as honest as they come. The Stragglers deliver great melodies on all the tracks and offer a variety of sounds, most of which are clearly confined in good old-fashioned country music. The only complaint I have about the album is in the mixing. Squelch was recorded onto tape, and the instruments drown out Boland’s voice from time to time. The mixing out of the soundboard could have been better to correct this. But that’s only a minor complaint and the only noticeable misstep on the album. From start to finish, Squelch, is a rowdy, politically charged album with great lyrics and even better instrumentation.