Album Review – Speedbuggy USA’s ‘South of Bakersfield’

“We’re on a mission to put the ‘western’ back in country & western music.” That’s how lead singer Timbo describes his band Speedbuggy USA. The five piece band calls Los Angeles home, and draw inspiration from the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, deeply rooting their music into the Bakersfield sound of country music. Speedbuggy USA is as authentic as you can get as a honky tonk band with twangy vocals and ringing steel guitars while keeping the guitars loud and audience on their feet. Joining Timbo is Seth Von Paulus (lead guitar), Brady Sloan (bass), Greg McMullen (pedal steel), and Christos Hansen (drums). South of Bakersfield is the band’s 8th studio record, and acts as a firm commitment to Speedbuggy USA’s Bakersfield sound.

Using the image of western horse buggies, I imagine the “speed buggy” as a synonym for a car. Combined with the album cover on South of Bakersfield, this album almost acts like a journey. A journey to temporarily leave Bakersfield to escape pain and return home. Or maybe the journey of band leaving home for a tour leg. The opening number, “Still Movin’ On,” sets the pulse pounding mood right away with the southern rock musical introduction. Timbo sings of jumping in his car and driving south of Bakersfield to move on from pain and escape sorrow. The driving song never lets off the pedal with the guitar notes rising through the solo until the final vocal note. The next song could work as a follow-up to the album opener. “1,000 Miles From Nowhere” finds the driver falling back into the habitual negative thinking. Tears are starting to come back, and the urge to drown sorrows at a bar returns. He tries not to lose his ground as he continues aimlessly driving. This song is more of a natural country song with the noticeable pedal steel making its way into the production.

Speedbuggy USA slow it down with “Wrong Side.” Joined by singer Bunny West, the song is a duet detailing the troubled relationship between the two. Continuing along the theme of a man on a journey, “Wrong Side” finds him struggling to maintain his relationship while spending time on the road and at the bars. The band slows it down for quiet, reflective verses and pick it up for the choruses where Timbo and Bunny West harmonize nicely. The band jumps into full-fledged country honky tonk with “Set ‘Em Up.” The steel guitar is ever-present and the production is undoubtedly Bakersfield. Timbo sings of spending too much time at the bar and drinking too much. As upbeat as the production is, a lyric like “happy hour ain’t happy no more” says it all.

The band’s re-recording of “Rusted Cars” comes next. The song was originally featured on their album Valle De La Muerte, a tribute album to the state of Louisiana (Timbo’s home state) and the victims of Hurricane Katrina. This re-recording has a more upbeat production with a fitting cajun influence. The song details a man who looks around at the flooding in the streets with water rising, cars rusting, and things floating in the street. The band slows it down again for “Liars, Thieves N’ Ramblers.” This country ballad deals with man who’s down on his luck. He compares himself to a train carrying hobos, wanting to know if the woman he loves is willing to get on board with him or walk out the door.

“Git Yer Wagon Rollin'” is a quick, exciting instrumental featuring electric guitars and banjos. It does a good job showcasing the skillful instrumentation of the band, but ends just a bit too soon at the one minute mark. The journey of South of Bakersfield comes to an end with the appropriately titled “Bakersfield.” While trying to return home after the last honky tonk, the truck breaks down much to the singer’s lament. The song balances between quieter verses and more upbeat, country two-stepping choruses. “Bakersfield” ends the album on a more solemn note, but keeps the beat and feel of the album going until the final note.

South of Bakersfield is a quick album with only 7 songs and 1 instrumental track, but it’s an effective album. Speedbuggy USA is committed to the honky tonk sounds of county and western music, and South of Bakersfield illustrates that commitment perfectly. The album flows nicely between the upbeat songs and more solemn ballads. The band grasps your attention and holds it from start to finish, but leave you wanting a song or two more. Speedbuggy USA’s instrumentation is spot on and the production of the songs are well-balanced. The melodies are present but not overbearing, and lead singer Timbo’s voice fits perfectly with the musical styles. Any fan of honky tonk country music and the Bakersfield sound will enjoy South of Bakerfield.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Dale Watson’s ‘Call Me Insane’

Dale Watson has been an independent country staple since his 1995 debut album Cheatin’ Heart Attack. Watson hit his musical stride in Austin, Texas, and for twenty years now, Watson has been releasing album after album of honky-tonk country music. While Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and George Strait are country music pioneers reigning from Texas (and rightfully so), Dale Watson shouldn’t be ignored. His style of honky-tonk country and the Bakersfield sound is consistently excellent, and that is ever-present on his new album Call Me Insane.

The album kicks off with toe tapping “A Day at a Time.” This tune touches on the philosophy of tomorrow will be tomorrow so don’t worry about it, and do what you can to make it through today. This is a nice first song for the album, with instrumental breaks of the keyboard and guitars. “Bug Ya for Love” is a more mid-tempo country song about Watson pining for the affections of a woman. The determination to bug her for her love until she’s reached the final straw is a little off-putting to me. He isn’t tasteless in his attempts, by any means, but it just sort of comes off as a little much. Though with only one verse and a chorus repeated once more, the song leaves plenty of room for steel guitars and pianos to take the front seat in an extended solo.

“Burden of the Cross” is a heavy, heartbreaking ballad of a roadside memorial being removed to make room for a highway expansion. In 2000, Watson’s fiancée lost her life in a car accident, and I have to imagine that memory was a key influence for this song. Watson’s deep, heavy drawl along with the dark country production work well with the heartbreaking content of the song. “Everybody’s Somebody in Luchenbach, Texas” is a song dedicated to the Texas small town. Much like Waylon Jennings memorialized the town, Watson praises the town for it’s simplistic beauty and enjoys the company of a good loving woman. The Bakersfield sound is strong on this track.

Watson brings forth some excellent country heartbreak with “Crocodile Tears.” Their love has died and Watson is heartbroken, trying to convince himself that she feels the same way. However, he knows her tears and sorrow were simply just for show. Dale Watson then pays tribute to the late George Jones with “Jonesin’ For Jones.” This upbeat, honky-tonking song wishes to hear the Possum play, and while Jones can’t play the songs anymore (may he rest in peace), his music will never die. With the way the song is produced, it wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a George Jones album. It’s a fitting, excellent tribute to the country music legend.

“I’m Through Hurtin’” finds Watson gearing up for a night on the town. He’s tired of sulking after a breakup and wants to have some fun. There’s an excellent steel guitar ring on this song. The title track explores the heart of a man who holds out thinking relationships may end differently. If it’s crazy for him to have hope in his heart for a better outcome, than call him insane. This is a slow-moving song, but Watson’s vocals are great, and the inclusion of the horns in the production are wonderful.

“Heaven’s Gonna Have a Honky Tonk” is rocking, honky-tonk two stepper about what Dale Watson thinks heaven will be like. He sings in the first verse, “I read in the good book heaven is a place where the only thing we’ll have is all we’ll want. If he said it, then it’s true. Well I got news for you, heaven’s gonna have a honky-tonk.” The mix of religious references with the atmosphere of a honky-tonk bar makes for some great imagery. Watson brings forth some Spanish inspired country music with “Tienes Cabeza de Palo.” For all you who don’t speak Spanish, that roughly translates to “you’re hard headed” or “you’re stubborn.” His woman calls him that, and her accent of the romance language makes this insult sound sweet. More horns make their way into this production of the song, and they are quite welcome in this light-hearted, fun song.

Dale Watson explore love and relationships over the next couple songs. “I Owe It All to You” is a country ballad where Watson thanks his woman’s ex for basically being bad enough to end the relationship. Watson is thankful for the woman in his life, and is aware of why she’s his now. “Forever Valentine” is a ballad where Watson declares his love for her forever. It’s a heartfelt love song honoring a deep, committed love. “Hot Dang” compares falling in love with a sunny day. In this quick, 2 minute country jam, Watson is no longer walking around with a rain cloud over head and feels the joy that comes from the love of his woman.

The album ends with “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies.” The title, reworked from the country classic, calls for raising boys in a country cowboy way: letting them drink, eat chicken fried steak and gravy, and love wild women. This is the only song on the album Dale Watson did not write; it was written by Tony Joe White. However, this cover sounds right at home on Watson’s album, and is a fitting song to close Call Me Insane.

Overall, Call Me Insane, is another great offering from Dale Watson. While he may not get the same recognition as some of his outlaw and Bakersfield country peers, Watson continues to build on the foundation that Waylon, Willie, and Merle laid. At 14 songs, Call Me Insane gets a little lengthy, and there may be a song or two that could have been left of the cutting room floor. However, the length does not diminish the quality of country music here. Call Me Insane is an album true country fans will enjoy.

Grade: 8.5/10

Album Review – Whitey Morgan’s ‘Sonic Ranch’ is Absolutely Amazing

Whitey Morgan Sonic Ranch

I’ve been waiting for months to write a review for this album. I fortunately received an early copy of this album and I’ve been listening to it ever since. When I hear something this great, I want to tell everyone about it. Now I finally can. Before I even write the review I’m just going to tell you right now: go buy Whitey Morgan’s Sonic Ranch. When I alluded to there being at least one album of the year candidate being released in May, many of you assumed I was referring to Chris Stapleton’s Traveller album. Well that wasn’t it, as that surprised me. This is the album I was referring to. Morgan, a Flint, Michigan native, along with his band the 78s delivered an album that even surpasses Traveller in my mind. It’s that damn great. This is music straight out of the Waylon Jennings era of country music. I think you get the picture, so without further I’m going to break down this phenomenal album the best I can, even though I know my words won’t do it justice.

Sonic Ranch starts off with “Me and the Whiskey,” which immediately establishes the theme of this album: gritty, booze drenched heartache and pain. In this song the man has given up on pretty much everything, from God to his mom to cocaine. It’s now just him and his whiskey as he drinks everything away. It’s a great song to kick off this album and prepares the listener for the rest of the album experience. Morgan gives us pure, honky tonk country goodness with “LowDown on the Backstreets.” Really the entire album is honky-tonk country, but this one sticks out to me because of its brilliant instrumentation. The steel guitar and piano are perfect in this song. Next is the Townes Van Zandt penned “Waitin’ Round To Die.” Morgan does the famous Texas songwriter justice in this cover and fits perfectly with the theme of the album. The song tells the story of a man who’s lived a hard life. This includes growing up with separated parents, a woman stealing all of his money and getting thrown into prison for two years. When he does get out his only friend now is codeine, which he says doesn’t drink, smoke or lie to him like everyone else in his life. It’s an emotional song that you really need to hear for yourself.

Even though it’s hard to pick a favorite on an album as good as this one, “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” stands out a little more for me than the rest. Everything in this song works so well together that I liken it to a well-oiled machine. You couldn’t make it any better. The punctuating moment of this song is when Whitey croons out, “Well I’m still drunk, still blue, I’m still all fucked up over you/I’m still stoned, I’m still alone.” It really helps paint the picture of a heartbroken man drinking himself silly. It may seem like a simple song, but the emotions and instrumentation really make this song special. “Leavin’ Again” is about a man who continues to watch his woman leave him over and over again. It tears him up so much that he “shakes and cries like a child.” He admits he hasn’t been his best, but he still wants another chance. It’s a fantastic heartbreak song that expresses the emotion of it so well.

The next song, “Goin’ Down Rock,” seems to be the epilogue to “Leavin’ Again.” The man is basically sleeping around and refuses to go down unless he “goes down rocking.” Basically he wants to live life as hard as possible and won’t go down unless he’s doing it full throttle. Once again the steel guitars are just fantastic. The quietest track on the album is “Good Timin’ Man,” a song about a man struggling to be his normal self due to his alcohol and relationship problems. He’s able to put on the façade when he’s in front of everyone, but deep down he’s hurting. The choice of alternating between an acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar throughout is great. “Drunken Nights in the City” sets the scene of the grimy and seedy underbelly of cities across America. Morgan warns of shady characters and crooks ready to “take you for more than you know.” When Morgan seeks redemption from a preacher, the preacher tells him he’s been on the streets far too long. In other words, he’s broke beyond repair, as the streets have become a part of him. Again Morgan does a brilliant job of painting the scene in listeners’ heads.

The penultimate song on the album, “Ain’t Gonna Take It Anymore,” is about a man who catches flack from his woman about screwing around and finding some incriminating stuff on his phone. Fed up, the man sets out into town with a bottle of whiskey in his hand to drink her away. While at the bar he finds a woman whose beauty strikes him, but that’s when he notices her husband looking at him in a drunken stupor, who warns him to get the hell out of there. That’s when the man realizes he’s bitten off more than he can chew and heads home, where he should have stayed in the first place. It’s a self-deprecating song with the right mix of humor and reality. Sonic Ranch closes out with “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” the story of how a man ended up in Memphis because he followed his love there. She ended up leaving, but he doesn’t regret following his heart. He still loves her and wants to find her to tell her this, as he seems to be determined to go wherever to win her heart. It’s a touching love song that beautifully caps off the album.

What makes this album stand out above a lot of other country albums released so far is how cohesive and tight-knit everything is on this album. The instrumentation and the production is flat-out perfect. The lyrics are emotional and tell brilliant stories throughout it. Morgan’s bellowing voice reminds me of a lot of Waylon Jennings and Sturgill Simpson, yet Whitey is much more gruff and gritty giving it a different texture compared to the likes of Jennings and Simpson. The album is the exact right length of 10 songs. It leaves no room for unnecessary filler that can bring the quality down. It’s straight, no-holds barred, outlaw-style country music that will leave you wanting more. This is the kind of album that will make people take notice of Whitey Morgan and put him on the radar of country music fans everywhere. This is an artist and album everyone needs to hear. Sonic Ranch right now is one of the top candidates for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year. There are very few country albums better than this one.

Grade: 10/10

For those who collect vinyl, you can purchase this album in three different colors (standard black, white, orange) off of Whitey’s website right here.

Album Review – Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Second Hand Heart’

Dwight Yoakam Second Hand Heart

When looking back at the history of country music, I consider Dwight Yoakam one of the biggest influencers of the genre. When Yoakam started his career, the urban cowboy movement was in full swing in Nashville. Yoakam’s honky-tonk, “hillbilly” music was considered not marketable and no label would give him a look. So he headed west on his own dime and made the music he wanted to make. His rock-influenced brand of country helped make not only honky-tonk country popular in the late 80s, but helped bring in many rock fans into the genre who had previously shunned country music. Yoakam, along with Randy Travis and Keith Whitley, helped usher in the neo-traditional country era, which was way too short. You can thank Garth Brooks for this. Yoakam has had a pretty successful career, despite the fact that I feel he doesn’t get near enough the credit he deserves. I was pretty happy when he came back to music in 2012 after not releasing new music for five years while focusing on his acting career. His return album 3 Pears was damn good, so he had a tall task falling it up with his newly released album Second Hand Heart.

Does it meet up to the standards of 3 Pears? No. It surpasses it! Second Hand Heart is one of the best country albums I’ve heard this year. From beginning to end this album is great. Second Hand Heart begins with “In Another World,” a decidedly traditional country song with Yoakam’s signature Bakersfield sound. It’s about imagining a currently failed relationship going smooth in another world, a coping mechanism to deal with heartbreak. It’s an interesting theme. Combined with the infectious steel guitar and the alluring rhythm, this makes it easy to want to listen to this song over and over. A tambourine and a steel guitar kick off “She.” It’s a song about a woman who won’t show her true side and who she really is. She would rather give off an illusion to throw people off. It creates this sense of mystery and aura around her, which just makes you want to get to know her more. Yoakam does a great job creating this image of this mystery girl in the listeners’ heads.

Yoakam slows it down with “Dreams of Clay,” a heartbreak ballad. The man realizes in the song that all of the dreams they had together were just made of clay and that he now has to move on from her. He’s well aware of heartbreak and the pain from it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to take. Yoakam’s vocals really impress me on this particular song because he sells the emotions of the story being told so well. The album’s title track is a rocking tune about wanting to give up on love. “Second Hand Heart” paints the picture of a person who is experiencing some serious pessimism towards love after having it in the past and now not having it. The opening and closing line of the song puts it best: “When I trusted love I dreamed in color too.” It really sets the tone of this song perfectly.

The throwback, rockabilly tune “Off Your Mind” tells the story of a man who had a woman dump him without saying goodbye. It’s left him feeling rightly irritable towards her and basically she’s been dead to him ever since she walked out the door. He says he’s happy because he’s “alone right where you left me off your mind.” It perfectly sums up the feelings of a person who got dumped in this manner. This is definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album. “Believe” has the opposite reaction of “Off Your Mind,” as it’s about a man convincing a woman to continue to believe in their relationship. He reminds her of their love and to let go of the bad memories, as he tries to keep her. Backed by great instrumentation, this song is catchy in every way. I also applaud Yoakam’s artistic skill in pulling off in back-to-back songs both sides of the coin when it comes to love. It reminds you of why Yoakam is so respected and revered in music.

The most fun song on the album is next, which is “Man of Constant Sorrow.” It’s a Bakersfield country song that is impossible to not want to at least tap your feet along with. You can easily dance along with it too. The guitar play is simply phenomenal. I can say the same of Yoakam’s vocals. I just want to listen to this song over and over. Yoakam keeps it going with “Liar,” another song that just has amazing and fun instrumentation. You can tell Yoakam had a lot of fun recording this song. It’s a “tell it like it is” song about being with a woman who lies and tells the man how to feel it, but he’s calling her out for it. The harmonica solo in the middle song made me go from really liking this song to loving it because I’m a sucker for slick harmonica play. Yoakam brings with these songs a factor that has been missing from mainstream country music: a dance factor. And he uses country instrumentation to bring this dance factor to his music. So anyone who says traditional country music can’t be fun is wrong once again.

“The Big Time” is just another song that flat-out rocks. This is pure Dwight Yoakam right here, folks. It’s a fun anthem that you just want to hit play on again and again. It combines punk rock and country to produce a kickass song. Just listen to it. This fantastic album concludes with “V’s Of Birds,” which is another great song. It’s a feel good song that compares finding happiness to v’s of birds flying south for the winter, finding warmth and sunshine (kudos to writer Anthony Crawford for this perfect comparison). Opening with a combination of a piano and organ gives the song an uplifting feeling. It’s the kind of song you can listen to and instantly feel happy after hearing it. I would also be remiss to not point out the stellar mandolin solo too. One more thing to point out: With the exception of two songs (“V’s of Birds” and “Man of Constant Sorrow”), Yoakam wrote every song himself on this album. Needless to say Yoakam is a music genius.

There’s no other way to say it: Second Hand Heart is awesome. You aren’t going to hear many country albums as good as this one for the rest of the year. It has touching ballads, rocking honky-tonk and some of the best instrumentation I’ve heard on an album in recent memory. Yoakam’s voice is as brilliant as ever. I think I speak for Yoakam fans everywhere when I say this: don’t ever leave music again. While I enjoyed Yoakam as Pastor Phil in Four Christmases, I would much rather listen to him produce amazing albums like this one. I give Second Hand Heart my highest recommendation, as it’s definitely a top candidate for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year. Just like he did back in the 80s, Yoakam brings us traditional country in a world that badly needs it.

Grade: 10/10