The bearded Mr Harris stares out from the cover illustration like some doomed 19th century outlaw. Indeed his country music - and this is country music straight up - may well fall into that category too, if for no other reason than he plays it as it should be played; with no concession to current demands and fads. The feisty label Cow Island is known for sticking to its guns and delivering the hard stuff. Together they have delivered one of the year’s best albums.
Harris is a native of Montgomery, Alabama who has travelled around a lot before playing country music with his band the Tough Choices. They released their debut, I’ll Keep Calling, through Cow Island in 2012 and it won the Independent Music Awards best country album of the year. This album should equal that at very least. Its 10 tracks are all written by Harris and you can hear his influences blend into something fresh and vibrant. The music is part of a living tradition that, while the lifestyle and locations of its audience may have changed, the sentiments and motivation have changed little.
The album is written, produced, arranged and sung by Harris who has employed his band, including co-producer Adam Meisterhans - a man who understand the dynamic of country guitar - with the latest incarnation of the Tough Choices which includes steel player Brett Resnoick, bass and drummer Timmy Findlen and Jerry Pentacost, with Mark Sloane on keyboards with Chance McCoy (from Old Crow Medicine Show). Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) joins then on sax for the final track Young Women and Old Guitars. Other guests include backing singers Nikki Lane, Shelly Colvin and Ashley Wilcoxson. The whole kit and caboodle were recorded by co-producer Justin Francis in Nashville.
The themes are heartbreak, longing and hankering for love. The album opens at a dance floor pace with Give a Little Lovin’ and is followed in similar style by A Breaking Heart, The next song up is one about open roads and romances and sounds just like an old friend giving advice. The title track is full of sadness and sorrow perfectly delivered by Harris’ finely wrought singing, full of emotion and pain, and the music matches every beat of the broken heart. Maria tells of the woman of that name and how if she were still close, she would be his woman of choice.
The road warrior’s life is the theme of the self explanatory Truckstop Amphetamines and it again reeks of a ‘been there, done that’ attitude and is more effective in its slower pace and thoughtfulness . The final track is short but effective and closes the album with the aforementioned Young Woman and Old Guitars, a kind of a ‘these are my favourite things’ song. This is a balanced and enjoyable album that easily defines county with a hardcore honky tonk attitude as opposed to what currently passes for ‘country’ in the charts, although one can take heart that Metamodern Sounds in Country Music by Sturgill Simpson made it into the top twenty of the Billboard Country album chart. Home is where the Hurt Is should definitely be there too.