Reviews by Stephen Rapid

The Warden 'The East Dallas Warden' - Idol

Ward Richmond, a Texas native and long time part of the Dallas music community, has released a debut album under the name The Warden. Describing his music as "East Dallas honky tonk", he delivers a set of 12 self-written songs that loosely fit that definition. They are rough and ready roadhouse honky-tonk which feature Richmond’s his upfront life-worn voice. He is ably joined by a quartet of backing vocalists who both bolster and back up his punchy delivery.

Fellow Texas musician Robert Jason Vandygriff produced the album after pushing Richmond to take his semi-biographical songs into a studio. Vandygriff is also one of three guitarists while a solid robust rhythm section holds things down.  The sound is also embellished by pedal steel, keyboards and brass, all of which makes for diversity in the overall sound. At one point Richmond points that what is lacking in proficiency is made up in pure "moxie"; In other words, attitude and enjoyment count for a lot in The Warden's territory.

The songs give you a fair clue as to the lyric direction as they are tales of touring, drinking, fussing, fighting and fellowship with titles like Deny, Deny, Deny, County Line, Interstate, High Life and Dark Clouds. There is nothing unfamiliar to anyone with a penchant for punky, Southern styled, beer-stained, hardass country music, but you can't help but smile and enjoy this CD, especially on catchy tracks like Our Town and Bullets where Richmond duets with Madison King, one of his female guest vocalists.

Richmond wanted to express the highways and byways of his life with a degree of truth and a little added fiction to make them interesting. Texas is a big place and there's much going on outside Austin's city limits. This album is harder than the more traditional Heart of Texas styled releases, but it still draws from a Friday/ Saturday night having a good ethos, one that is both timeless and universal. 

Ted Z and the Wranglers 'Ghost Train'- Rip Cat

The Wranglers are a grassroots roots band from California fronted by the man named as Ted Z. He kids his Wranglers through a bunch of songs that are built around some serviceable melodies and hooks. There are elements of rock 'n' roll and outlaw country tempered with some lighter, folkier, storytelling. The title track evokes the spirits of lost musical souls featuring diverse icons such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as well as Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly  over a train rhythm beat, while Jackson Leverone’s atmospheric slide guitar evokes the essential spookiness of the song. 

Throughout, Monty Byrom's production brings out the best in these romantic, robust and rousing songs of love, lingering doubts and a liberalism that considers politics, people, places and the search for some truth and justice in the American way. Z is the writer and he has some skill in that department along with a dependable voice that has both warmth and grit.

Ghost Train probably has more in common with the insurgent county/cowpunk moments of decades past than with some of the more metalized rock that masquerades as country these days. There are strands of blues and Southern Rock neatly woven into their take on Americana. The songs are often hurtling down the tracks and building up a fair head of steam such as Joseph Ratcliff, Kansas, Bitter Hands and Postcard, which works particularly well with the rhythm section of Dan Mages and Mike Myers providing an insistent chugging base for Z's vocal and Leverone's guitar. 

On the other hand, this quartet are equally comfortable on ballads and slower tempos. The final track, Broken,  is just guitar and vocal and a heartfelt lyric of a "broken man waiting to bleed". Bitter Hands starts out slow but builds with baritone guitar and acoustic before the band kicks in. Producer Monty Byrom adds Bill Mason's keyboards on certain tracks to give a wider texture to songs like Go Find Your Heaven which tells the listener to go find the place that the singer never can. Ghost Train is an easy album to like if you like your Americana with some weight and songs that ring true. Z and the Wranglers have made a debut that will make them friends. 

Speedbuggy USA 'South of Bakersfield' - Wagon Wheel

As the title suggests,  Speedbuggy USA are an LA based-band who play what would have been termed 'cowpunk' a couple of decades ago; cowpunk being avibrant mix of classic country, rock 'n' roll with a punk attitude. This, their 8th release, is an 8 track collection of self-written songs that deal with blue collar lifestyles and some of life's rougher deals. Still Movin' On is a song about the travails of a trucker and is delivered at the speed of a high-rolling truck on a straight highway. Wrong Side is a duet with Bunny West that is about the battle with the bottle; a steel guitar infused poignant ballad it contrast with the more hi-octane nature of a couple of the other songs. The band’s lead singer, Timbo, having come through some pretty severe health issues, sings with the conviction of a survivor about these hard times. He sings with all the feel of someone who has lived through or been close to them and the rest of the band are right behind him and give these songs a solid and satisfying kick. 

There are enough changes of tempo and texture to keep it interesting throughout. The twanging Telecaster, steel guitar, strident rhythm section and, on occasion, as with Rusted Cars, an accordion adds to the overall feel. Git Yer Wagon Rollin' has the tongue in cheek feel of a speed driven hoedown with banjo prominent. Liars, Thieves and Ramblers sums up the types who live within some of these songs. It has a standout vocal from Timbo on a mid-paced stripped down song that doesn't so much judge the misfits as understand something of their plight. 1000 Miles from Nowhere is not the Dwight Yoakam song, but another song of a man who feels isolated on the road and from life at home. The road is a way out - or maybe not. Bakersfield closes the album with a song about being back on the road, broken down somewhere outside of that storied town.  

Speedbuggy USA sits outside the country mainstream, and always have done, but they play music that they want to play they way they want to play it, and for a small band that counts. It's also music I'm happy to listen to. 

Toby Keith '35 MPH Town' - Show Dog

Drink, the consumption of, taken to forget or just to unwind, has always been a fundamental part of country music but of late it seems to be Nashville’s solution to world peace. There's Beer on Clint Black’s most recent album and here Toby Keith opens his new album with another such salute to the leveling (pun intended) nature of alcohol in Drunk American,  a song written by Bob DiPiero, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. They are all seasoned writers, but this song will not be remembered as one of their best. Many of the other songs on the album are co-writes between Keith and Bobby Pinson, who made a fine solo album for RCA some time back. Pinson also co-produced the album excepting the Buffett-esque Rum Is The Reason which Mac MacAnally co-helmed. Buffett himself appears on Sailboat for Sale, although this is less related to his trademark sound than Rum is. Another song that has alcohol as its theme is Haggard, Hank And Her where the two named singers help with the pain induced by the latter. The final song Beautiful Stranger closes the album in a welter of strings on a power ballad inspired by the appearance of the woman of the title 

More to the point is that this album sounds a Hell of a lot more traditionally country than many of it's contemporaries. Russ Pahl’s steel is prominent throughout but having said that it is still not as edgy as it could be giving the fact that this is Keith's own label and he presumably records what he wants. He obviously still records with an ear for radio airplay. It is largely free from the political stance that some of his songs have taken in the past, concerning itself largely with the pursuit of a good time - albeit via lubrication amid an aura of lasciviousness.

Those who have enjoyed Toby Keith in the past will enjoy this album, as he plows his own furrow with a an identifiable voice that is at the centre of these songs and there is no doubting his prowess in that department. Like few of the other singer/songwriters who emerged when he did, Keith has followed his muse and while his music may not be for those who look to the rougher, more outlaw edges of country, he has remained true to his own vision and attitudes and for that his many fans will raise a glass (or two).

George Strait 'Cold Beer Conversation' - MCA Nashville

The latest album from George will hardly change opinions about his more recent output. It is solid, dependable, listenable and country. But there's not much different to consider and that maybe is exactly the point. Like Alan Jackson, Strait represents the forefront of traditional styled country in this day and age. We seem to be on a cusp of something a little broader in the American context without falling into the trap of bro-country or lame rock country, with artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton selling albums in quantities large enough for the majors to take notice.

That is as may be, but George Strait isn't likely to change his game plan at this stage. More likely he will change some of the writers whose songs he chooses. So while there are a couple of co-writes with long time contributor Dean Dillon, the name s that come to fore here are Jamey Johnson (two co-writes, one with seasoned veterans Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon). Four come from the pen of Keith Gattis, solo or co-writes. Gattis was an interesting solo artist with some good albums to his name as well as acting, for a time, as Dwight Yoakam's lead guitarist. 

The songs that stand out, for this writer are Cheaper than a Shrink, which is guess what?  Yep, it’s drink. That's also the key ingredient in Cold Beer Conversation. The musician credits include Paul Franklin on steel and Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin alongside A-teamers like Glenn Worf, Brent Mason and Greg Morrow.  Top notch players all, though they rarely cut loose in the Chuck Ainlay/George Strait production. Take Me to Texas by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally is a song that is filled with longing for a Texas of the past and a wish to return there as a final resting place. This one has fiddle and steel at its heart, as would only be right given the subject. Strait now also writes regularly with his son Bubba and their co-write (with others) It Takes All Kinds is a fun song that swings western style. Stop and Drink is another strong number that has a little message beneath the light-hearted approach.

There is indeed little to dislike about this album, even if you have wished for the odd surprise. You can't fault Strait's smooth vocal integrity and delivery. He is a seasoned pro and knows what his fans want and, mostly, he delivers, but a man who has sustains a career as long as George Strait is bound to have his own signature sound and may not feel the need to step outside it the way that, say, Alan Jackson has on a couple of his albums. Even so, while not his best album in recent times, it is a lot more satisfying than the recent live album.

Duane Rutter 'Crazy Things' - Flat

Crazy Things is a solid third set of songs from the Ontario based singer/songwriter. Rutter has a suitably lived-in voice that has some grit to it. The are some memorable songs in the set from the opening Don't Forget through a soulful I Don't Ask to the stripped back understanding that in time We Find Ourselves at Last. He and producer/guitarist Andrew Aldridge have assembled a supportive band that includes (on one track Take That Water) Band keyboard player Garth Hudson and his wife Sister Maud. Other players include a defining contribution from Steve "Honeyboy" Wood on steel guitar and a tight rhythm section of Carrie Ashworth on bass and Nick Burson on drums.

The title track is a slow paced reflection of how people will do crazy things under certain conditions. The song has a strong contribution from JB Reed on duet vocals; she also sings on three other songs offering a nice contrast and counterpoint to Rutter's voice. The songs largely deal with affairs of the (often broken) heart, with titles like Will I Ever Learn?, I Ain't No Good and Number One. But there is a redemptive quality to these self written songs and an uplifting feel to their performance that makes Crazy Things an easy album to like and to revisit.

The final song, the aforementioned Take That Water has an understandably) Band-like feel with the contributions from the Hudsons being very much to the fore and a solid groove throughout. Rutter reminds me of no one and everyone at the same time, in that the music is generic in content but is elevated by the production and collective performances that make this an album that has the potential to appeal to a larger audience than just the one he enjoys in Hamilton, Ontario. Crazy Things just goes to prove that there's a lot of good music out there just waiting for a connection. 


Toby Keith 'Hope On The Rocks' - HumpHead

If you’re already a Toby Keith fan then you’ll love this but if you’re not, then I don’t think it will swing you into the record store to get your own copy.  All of the fourteen alcohol infused tracks are co-written by Toby and it’s obvious from the lyrics who was the dominant partner in each co-write. The set opens with a power ballad tribute to the social counselling skills of your average life long bar tender and finishes with a live, audience grabber that Keith says “Ain’t never gonna make radio” and if the PC brigade ever hear it he’ll end up carrying two very important parts of his male anatomy around in a jar for the rest of his honky tonkin’ career.

I found the music a little bit on the country side of Lynard Skynard and owing more to Kenny Chesney than Merle or Hank but in combination with the lyrics it’s guaranteed to have legions of deprived Garth Brooks fans screaming in the aisles. If you find yourself listening to this album with a longneck in one hand and a “Daisy Mae” in the other then be prepared to vote a little more right of centre than you did in the past.

The main twelve tracks are contagious foot-tappers and grow on you with each listen but the four bonus tracks I could have done without. Country, mixed for night clubbing, I can well leave where I found it. Make no mistake Toby Keith can sing and knows his audience well and in truth I think he targets his output with a bit more sales marketing in mind than he is given credit for. The lyrics are not for your average caring sensitive feminine sided male but they were never set out to be. And I found myself liking this whole CD a lot more than I planned and it’s more likely to find itself in my Party Pack than in the Sin Bin, where most of the current pop masquerading as country ends up these days.

Good on ya Toby. You got me with this one. Chalk up another hit.

Toby Keith 'Clancy's Tavern' Show Dog/Humphead

In a world of ever changing attitudes, of personal beliefs and of doubtful country music, taking Toby Keith's music at face value it's country in a way that is immediately recognisable as that. His themes are about perennial - about love (Tryin' To Fall In Love, I Won't Let You Down), beer (Beer's Ago) and the life a regular Joe's (Red Solo Cup, Made in America, Clancy's Tavern) and they come from a man who has nailed his patriotism to the mast. Keith has written many of these songs with strong writers like Bobby Pinson (who made one of the better Music Row album's some time back which, naturally, got nowhere at radio), veteran Eddie Raven, Scotty Emerick and Bob DiPiero. Production is handled by Keith and is robust and rigorous and allows the studio band it's head. The guitar by Kenny Greenberg is well to the fore over a solid and propulsive rhythm section of Chad Cromwell and Kevin 'Swine' Garrett. Aubrey Haynie is on fiddle and mandolin. Steel guitar duties are shared by Paul Franklin and Russ Pahl. They are part of  solid studio team that are able to deliver the lighter songs as comfortably as the more full-on songs. That four people were need to write the novelty sing-along Red Solo Cup, but its one of those songs that will be loved and hated in equal measure. Toby Keith comes with his own reputation and attitude, something he also brings to his music and while in some minds in may be hard to divorce the two this album will please his fans and is one of his strongest to date. The are 4 additional tracks on the UK edition. Four good-time live tracks, a band out for a good time, the songs where recorded as Incognito Bandito who include several of the album's players having fun in a live setting. They close the album in roadhouse style and one of those songs, a cover of Truck Drivin' Man, show clearly where Toby Keith's musical roots lie along with his rockin' cover of Chuck Berry's Memphis that show Keith enjoys making music.