Top Southern rock/country albums of 2009
Here's a look at the best Southern rock/country albums from 2009:
“Onion” by Mike McClure Band
Mike McClure cranked out his third album in three years, and it may be the best yet for the standard bearer of Red Dirt rockers.
“Onion,” released in August, is the Mike McClure Band’s sixth album and the third collaboration between the band and producer Joe Hardy (ZZ Top, Steve Earle, Cross Canadian Ragweed).
McClure, the former front man for Great Divide, returns to his solo career trademark hard-rockin’ country blues that mixes sweet traditional country sounds with speaker-distorting crankers.
You’ll want to turn the volume up on the opening track, the poetic “Crash Land”: “Well, baby, by now you should have learned, That what I do is not your concern; Yeah, I’m coming down to your midnight and it’s quite clear, That I’m fallin’ thru some burned out atmosphere. Yeah, I’m fallin’ down to the ground, I’m aimin’ for your hand; if I fell any faster, I’d feel like the master of broken plans. The highways are all frozen over and the airways are all jammed, Some day you’ll clear your runway, And let me crash land.”
Also on the album are the pulse-pumping “Deviants” and the guitar master’s introspective “Light on my Hands”: “The road’s been kickin’ my teeth in, A little harder than I had planned; Some days I can’t seem to shake it, Makin’ me a little meaner than I am. Get that light out of my eyes and Shine it where I’m working, boy, What part of this don’t you understand? Get that light out of my eyes and Shine it where I’m workin’, boy; Get that light down on my hands.”
You’ll need some of the slower-paced numbers on the album to let your heart stop racing. The best on the album are “Find I In You” and “Warm Inside,” on which he is joined by The Tractors’ Steve Ripley.
CRANK THIS TRACK: “Pumped Up Charlie,” written by McClure and Ripley, grabs the listener instantly with its driving riffs and lyrics: “On the outskirts of town in a trailer, They were waitin’ for him and they were drunk; He picked the wrong time to be a crooked jailer, Wound up bound up in the back of their trunk. Now give ‘em Pumped Up Charlie, yeah, I rehearsed my response … ”
“Little Bit of Dixie” by Blackberry Smoke
Atlanta-based Blackberry Smoke broke out a new classic Southern rocker this past summer with its fourth release, “A Little Piece of Dixie.”
“We don’t pull any punches about calling this Southern rock because that’s what it is,” Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr says on the band’s Web site, www.blackberrysmoke.com. “It’s what we think new Southern rock should sound like.”
Starr, guitarist Paul Jackson, bassist Richard Turner and drummer Brit Turner are indeed sons of the South, but their considerable chops recall The Swanee River Boys and The Stanley Brothers as much as Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers.
This band has an attitude and not just the bumper sticker material “too rock for country, too country for rock.” It lives it, as noted on its Web site: “At a certain point, Southern rock as it was perceived in the ’70s was alternately tarted up in slutty make-up by rock or blow-dried and sanitized by country, neither of which did much to effectively or appropriately expand the genre’s range.
“Blackberry Smoke may be too young to remember firsthand the visceral bite of early Lynyrd Skynyrd, the moody excellence of the Marshall Tucker Band and the gritty blues of the first three ZZ Top albums, but they do a pretty decent job of channeling the era without slipping into faceless arena country pop that shares little with Southern rock outside of a decibel level.”
I’ll put it another way. When you play “A Little Piece of Dixie,” be sure to turn it up!
The album jumps right in with a new summertime anthem “Good One Comin’ On”: “Two six-packs of Shiner, 99 cent butane lighter, Lucky Strikes and fifth of Patrone; Ice down that Igloo cooler, Tank of gas that outta do ‘er; I can feel a good one comin’ on.
“Throw in Ray Wylie Hubbard, Sing along to Redneck Mother, Any blues I had before are gone; Another working week is over, No chance of stayin’ sober, I can feel a good one comin’ on …”
It’s sure to be just as much fun next summer as this last one, and the year after and so on.
The band doesn’t shy away from Southern rock’s country roots, as demonstrated with its ode to the workin’ man on “Bottom of This”: “Well I ain’t trying to be no jerk, it’s just that I just got off from work, And I know you’d like to bend my ear, I wanna listen and that’s sincere, Can’t a fella have just one beer? Before the boss, the bank, the box full of bills, empty gas tank and it’s all up hill … I’ll get to the bottom of that, After I get to the bottom of this.”
CRANK THIS TRACK: “Up in Smoke”: “Hit town like a freight train runnin, Starin at us like a deer in the headlights; Never thought you had another thing coming; did the same damn thing to them last night … Up in smoke, down in flames, Jump onboard rolling like a freight train, Clap your hands, stomp your feet, Boogie on down to the redneck back beat. Slow down, it’s hillbilly hoedown, Fire up, we can go all night now, Come y’all, it aint no joke, Watch the world go up in smoke.”
“One Foot In The Ether” by The Band of Heathens
The Band of Heathens may well be the breakout band of the next decade. Last year, I missed their self-titled album, which followed two live records.
I had heard of the band, but not heard them. I checked it out in February, and without question, it would have been high on last year’s list; so it’s no surprise they’re high here.
Their sound is unique and addictive.
The guys in Band of Heathens are fond of saying they became a unit by accident, but “One Foot in the Ether” offers irrefutable evidence that they were meant to be together and have evolved into a solid entity worthy of the comparisons they receive to the Black Crowes, the Band and Little Feat. One listen will convince you they may well be worthy of that praise, just don’t categorize them. They’ll continue to grow on you every time you give it a listen.
For the same reason, the Austin-based band has continued to grow, playing 250-plus shows a year for the past 3 years (including a tour of Europe) and a November appearance on the PBS icon “Austin City Limits”.
Brooks says on the band’s Web site, www.bandofheathens.com, “We have three distinct writers/singers who share the front but make a unified sound, not unlike some bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the music was what drove the wheel, not the tabloid pop-star personality.”
The new album opens with the outlaw-country-ish “L.A. County Blues,” which pays tribute to avant garde writer and psychedelia promoter Hunter S. Thompson: “I was never one for compromise, couldn’t fit in school, counseled by the seventh grade, played ‘em all the fool. I couldn’t find shoes my size, I had to walk 10 miles, with blisters on the backs of my soul, and an illegal smile.”
The band displays its unique range -- from the soulful toe-tapper “Shine A Light” and the ‘60s-ish psychedelic rock homage “Golden Calf” to the folksy rocker “What’s This World,” which asks, “What’s this world coming to? I see floods every spring and water for sale …”
CRANK THIS TRACK: “You’re Gonna Miss Me”: The bluesy country rocker declares: “I was born in a post-Romantic Age, I don’t play or compose, that’s two things I don’t do no more.”
“The Rose Hotel” by Robert Earl Keen
The long-awaited lucky 13th release (give or take a couple live/hits albums) from the Texas king of country folk was produced by icon Lloyd Maines.
It delivers catchy tunes that delve into the nuances of life in a digital age, as in the title track: “She was waiting at the Rose Hotel, just across the street from the wishing well, Turned the latch and broke a nail, Checked her mobile phone, Sometimes you run, Sometimes you fall.”
And then there’s the irreverent jab at modern society in “Wireless in Heaven,” in which he asks while standing in line at a Starbucks: “Will there be wireless in heaven, I just wanna know, Do I need a password, to log in when I go, And does Jesus have Web site, To send me my e-mail? Is there wireless in heaven, or do I go to hell?”
Ever heard a song written off an old joke? Take a listen to the heavy bluesy beat of “10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar” and you can answer yes: “I don’t know if I got it right, Maybe no one knows, It’s just a joke I heard one night, And that’s the way it goes.”
CRANK THIS TRACK: On “Throwing Rocks,” Keen proves he can lay down a heavy country rocker with the best of them, even if he prefers the quieter side of the recording studio. “He was throwing rocks in the river, counting ties on the track, … standing by the water, throwing rocks, skipping stones.”
“All Points in Between” by Rebel Pride
Southern rockers Rebel Pride have been hanging around the West Coast of Florida for the last decade or so.
Its third release included a controversial hit about the Rebel Flag. In “Heritage, not Hate,” the band states its case with self-assured rebel pride: “All the Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed, it’s gonna piss a lot of people off; Stopping lies about history, And see how beautiful that flag is … Just like the national flag it’s had its blood spilled, You can’t forget but you can forgive. We got bigger things to worry about in this life, Honor the people who died on both sides; You can bury your head in the sand, Or throw away what you need to understand, I’m talking ‘bout heritage not hate.”
The band takes a tongue-in-cheek look at its role in the rockers “Girls Just Wanna Dance” and “It Is What It Is”.
CRANK THIS TRACK: “One More Chance” starts off a slow ballad in the vein of Florida rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Outlaws but quickly stakes its own claim: “There’s nowhere left to hide, There’s no more lies to tell; But there’s one more gun, under the table, and one more chance in hell …”
Top 10 in ‘09
1. Mike McClure Band, “Onion”
2. Blackberry Smoke, “Little Bit of Dixie”
3. The Band of Heathens, “One Foot In The Ether”
4. Robert Earl Keen, “The Rose Hotel”
5. Rebel Pride, “All Points in Between”
6. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “God and Guns”
7. Various artists, “Undone: A Musicfest Tribute to Robert Earl Keen”
8. Cross Canadian Ragweed, “Happiness And All The Other Things”
9. Alligator Jackson, “Chomp On”
10. J.J. Cale, “Roll On”
David Schiefelbein is editor of Missouri's Lake Sun.