I like my cowboys with philosophy degrees. It’s okay if they wear the Stetson hats as long as they quote Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein. Or know how to spell their names. Or at least have more on their minds than longnecks and short skirts. These three cowboys more or less fit the pattern, although none of them wears a Stetson, and one of them is at least partial to longnecks and short skirts. But I’m giving him extra credit for the literary reference on “Faulkner Street.”
Kasey Anderson – The Reckoning
Portland, Oregon troubadour Kasey Anderson has some cojones. He starts off his third album with the atmospheric five-minute title track, an apocalyptic spoken-word piece that will be an immediate turn off for Bubba and Wanda, who are just looking for a good two-step dance tune. Then again, Bubba and Wanda probably won’t know what to do with the song about New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden either. But fear not. If the Woody Guthrie cap and the Steve Earle rasp won’t convince you, then honky tonk barroom brawlers like “Hometown Boys” and “Wake Up” will immediately certify Anderson’s working man’s poet credentials. He’s a literate working man’s poet at that, and songs like “Don’t Look Back” and “For St. Ann’s” are surrealistic, visionary ballads, the product of someone who’s paid a lot of attention to those mid-‘60s Dylan albums. It’s a strange mix of sounds and influences, and it doesn’t always work. But Anderson’s a fine narrative-driven songwriter and storyteller, and the meat-and-potatoes honky tonk and roots rock peeks through often enough to make The Reckoning not only a worthwhile listen, but an entertaining one as well.
Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
When your last name is “Earle” and your middle name is “Townes” you have a lot to prove. So if the comparisons are inevitable, and they are, give Steve’s kid some credit. He’s his own man, and on his debut album he carves out a sonic niche that is more indebted to Hank Williams and truckstop jukebox anthems than either of his two famous namesakes. The title track and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” are straight out of the Merle Haggard and Buck Owens school of Bakersfield honky tonk, which is a very, very fine thing indeed. Unlike dad, Justin’s voice has the twang but not the rasp, and there are times when he’s a dead ringer for the young Hank Williams. But like dad, Justin has a penchant for writing songs set during the American Civil War, and his “Lone Pine Hill” is a good one that can hold its own with Steve’s “Taneytown” or “Ben McCulloch.” The album bogs down a bit toward the end, but the first eight songs are all memorable, and this is an impressive debut.
Hayes Carll – Trouble in Mind
Hayes Carll released the best Americana album of 2005 in Little Rock. Carll claimed at the time that all the good songs about Texas were already written, but that Arkansas was fertile new territory. And he was right. Trouble in Mind, the followup that arrives on Lost Highway Records April 8th, is worth the three-year wait. There’s the usual colorful cast of characters – drunkards, roustabouts, country singers – some of them all rolled into one autobiographical sonic package. There’s a great cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” There are gut-wrenching ballads like “Faulkner Street” and some great southern fried boogie, courtesy of guitar duelists Will Kimbrough and Georgia Satellites alum Dan Baird. Best of all there’s the hilariously vengeful “She Left Me For Jesus,” a good ol’ boy’s plot to get back at the man who stole his formerly fun-loving woman. “If I ever find Jesus,” Carll avows, “I’m gonna kick his ass.” There’s about forty-five minutes of asskicking here, all of it of the good, stomping musical variety.