To tie in with a series of European dates Clubhouse Records have released Tyson’s two US EPs (High on Lonesome and Cheater’s Wine) on a single disc which gives us 13 tracks of modern day country music, the real thing, inspired by the past but not a slave to it. The sticker on the CD front says “Old School sad-bastard country” a quote from Rolling Stone, who have picked Tyson as a name to watch. Listening to these eleven tracks you can easily see why. The Texas native lives in Nashville where he has become part of the musical community that exists well outside the influence of mainstream Music Row and country radio dictated grooming.
These self-written songs are tales of heartbreak and hesitation, sung with a voice that is whiskey stained and full of bar stool reminisces and neon-lit melancholy. Tyson could be taken as an approximation of how Justin Townes Earle might have gone after his debut EP if he hadn’t disliked the way that country was being perceived back them (and now). Cale Tyson from the opening song Honky Tonk Moan signals his allegiance with the semi-yodel of his lonesome voice. He produced both EPs and gathered a set of like-minded players around him. Crucial to that sound is pedal steel guitarist Brett Resnick who features on both sets of tracks. Guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Robert Ellis feature on High on Lonesome and Cheater’s Wine respectively. The rest of the skilled team included bassist Mark Rinne and drummer John McTigue and others well suited to their role of supporting players.
There are no turbo-charged neo hair-metal bro country workouts here. The music is quietly and effectively focused behind Tyson’s true vocal delivery. In that department he receives some sterling back up and harmony work on the EPs from Heidi Feek and Carolyn Martin, to name but two. There is so much that is good that it is hard to pick out specific tracks but Old Time Blues is exceptional and could be taken as a raison d’être. His sense of self deprecation, both real and imagined, is there for all to hear in Fool of the Year, a subject that has been a classic part of songwriting in the past, but given another memorable outing here. Tyson’s production serves the music well by giving each song a sense of the heritage classic country storytelling, but also looking to give the music it’s sense of its own time and place, something that is inherent in the ground breaking work of artists like Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam.
Cale Tyson is not the only one doing this kind of music, but he is very much at the forefront of those artists who have little to do with what currently resides at the top of the country music charts. Rather he joins a core of artists who strive for an integrity that ingrains their music and makes it something that can be returned to without any loss of credibility in the future. In that light it is both timeless and of it’s time. This is perfect musical foil for the excesses of many of those aforementioned soulless sales pitches. Cale Tyson is a major talent on a minor road.
California country man Langston has seven previous albums to his credit dating back to 2000. Hope You’re Happy Now is the latest and he has noted that each album, for a variety of reasons, tends come out differently. This one was inspired by Willie Nelson’s album Phases and Stages. Previous albums had more of a Bakersfield Telecaster twang, but on this album Langston wanted to explore the darker side of relationships in a similar way to Willie’s album.
He expanded the selection of musicians he worked with on previous albums, drawing on such LA scene notables as steel guitarist Chris Lawrence. The main lead guitarist was Johnny Hawthorn, who also contributed some lap steel and Hawthorn deserves much credit for his understated playing here. In truth all those involved do a fine job of serving the songs. Hope You’re Happy Now was recorded directly to tape and captures the spontaneity which is often lost with layered computer tracking and overdubbing.
Although Langston’s songs are dealing with the downside of relationships they are, at times, not without a little humour; try I Work Too Hard as an example that has a lighter side to its relevant points. Lyrically the songs are full of poignant moments that are drawn from life and experience, the kind of stuff that makes for good country music; subjects that are easy to empathise with and highlight the notion that country is the reverse side of the blues coin. Langston’s vocals throughout are compelling and strong, covering the different settings of the songs from the stripped back guitar and vocal of The Trigger, a song that leaves you in doubt just what the title refers to. Born to Ride in contrast, makes effective use of the full band to give the song a tight dynamic with keyboards and some greasy guitar.
Two songs that close the album are self-centred stories of relationships. One relationship that survives despite itself is Me and the Misses, which finds disparate characters coming from opposite viewpoints who find common ground despite their opposing attitudes; it has an inherent realistic charm. The final song, Me And Margaret in contrast, is about a couple who are on the same page, or bar stool at least and is a song best summed up by the line: “real drinking takes persistence and me and Margaret are the best”.
This was, surprisingly, my first encounter with Langston’s music other than a quick online check of some of his previous albums - which sound pretty fine to me. However, Hope You’re Happy Now is a highpoint for Langston with his players adding a layer of subtlety and consideration that makes for repeated listening.
Along with David Serby (who formed the California Roots Union with Langston), Dave Gleason, Mike Stinson and Sam Outlaw, Grant Langston is part of a resurgence of acts playing some real and diverse country music in California right now. They are part of a proud tradition that stretches back to Bakersfield, The Palomino and beyond and one that is also getting an added boost by the recent recordings and performances of longtime leading light Dwight Yoakam. I hope you’re happy now.
Andrew Combs is another Nashville singer-songwriter who is carving out his own space outside the rigid lines of that town’s industry requisites. He draws from classic country and an interesting element of classic pop stylings. Combs’ self-proclaimed influences range from Kris Kristofferson to Harry Nilsson. From one there is a sense of lyricism from the other feel for memorable arrangements. Listen to Fooling’ and Strange Bird as examples of this. Glen Campbell would be another reference point. There are other influence here, but you can have fun picking them up yourselves. A loose feels of 70s radio permeates the sound; a time where there wasn’t quite the genre restrictions that there are now. It was a time when pop music was a little more genuine than it was calculated
Producers Skylar Wilson and Jordan Leaning understand this combination of styles have gathered a team of players who can realise that vision and making something that is new and alluring from the components involved. These include Combs’ voice, which is a relaxed, almost casual, yet incisive tone and it is an integral part of the overall sound that mixes a certain humble vulnerability with a assuredness that is both comforting and comfortable. The duo Steelism, who have recently released their own album, are lead guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel player Spencer Callum Jr and they are also an integral part of the sound. They are always present and pervasive, but never in a way that detracts from the overall feel, but rather enhances it.
Combs is an accomplished writer who, along with his co-writers, balances melody with lyrical dexterity. Slow Road to Jesus uses strings to emphasise the redemptive nature of the song. Pearl takes on a darker hue, and again Combs adapts his vocal approach to this foreboding tale with its depiction of a passed-out musician and a young prostitute or a failed star and finds a glimpse of hope in these undervalued people. Month of Bad Habits starts with a more stripped down sound before building to a heightened ambience of regret.
This, the second album, from Combs, stands at a point that looks back in order to see a future. It draws from a more positive time, one that produced many classic pop moments and a time when Nashville also had its sights set on crossover potential, but hadn’t lost its heritage and sound either. The eleven songs clock in at under 40 minuets, which makes them concise and continued slices of some very cool and collected music. Something that sometimes dreams can be made of.