Professional sidemen who make the ten-foot jump to the spotlight shining down on the mic have made for some, uh, interesting musical forays over the years. Think Sambora with Stranger In This Town. Then, yeah, quickly try to stop thinking about it. Replace it with, say, Jason Roberts stepping out of Ray Benson’s shadow a bit to release that outstanding Texas Fiddle Man record several years back. Or maybe Billy Ray Reynolds’ stellar and moving A Whole Lot of Memories, still resonating today around a decade since its release. If you’ve heard either or both of those, then you definitely want to hear Chris Reeves. Much like Roberts, Reeves started young, playing West Texas dancehalls when he was 14. And very much like Roberts, it’s clear the reason Reeves was able to start so young is that he’s real, real damn good.
A Good Year for Beer shines on a number of levels, but let’s start with what it’s not. Because these days a lot of folks are getting downright uppity about their music. Either they’re Ryan Bingham fans because they want to listen to something that sounds authentic, or they’re Jason Boland fans because they want something that actually by-God IS authentic. They think Chesney’s an artist instead of an entertainer, or they find Tom Russell’s artistic riches endlessly entertaining. You get the drift. You know the people I mean. And frankly you’re probably one of them yourself. I surely have been. So let’s get clear, and quick: Chris Reeves is none of those guys. Instead, he’s something else that we’ve seen and treasured before, but have all too often forgotten about. He’s the guy picking great songs that someone else wrote, contributing a couple of his own along the way, and putting out the soundtrack to both the best Saturday nights in Texas and those beautiful, ephemeral spring mornings when the horses are coming out of the barn and the bluebonnets are in full bloom. Where’d we forget about that? Oh, somewhere along about the time when that guy named Strait quit playing San Marcos and New Braunfels and started playing arenas without ever turning into Garth Brooks. So is this review saying Chris Reeves is the second coming of George? Well, no. But listening to A Good Year for Beer is a lot like hearing the legend circa 1984, because it’s simple and homespun and hard-hitting all at once, yet wrapped in gossamer threads of outstanding instrumental accompaniment and aural beauty.
Like Strait then and now, most of the tracks are penned by others. But there’s an artistry present nonetheless. There’s not a single damn note out of place, which is tribute in itself both to Reeves’ general professionalism and his studio wizardry. He did the production here, along with a substantial role in the mixing. And the songs Reeves picks, whether unknown tracks from friends he’s made in the business or top-shelf covers like Tom T. Hall’s “Homecoming,” are an excellent fit for his vocal style. Given the singer-songwriter obsession in the Lone Star state over the past umpteen years, it’s just a little stunning to find a bona fide artist who’s singing somebody else’s songs in an utterly evocative way. Strait becomes the main comparison available, unfair as that may be given his longevity as opposed to this debut offering. But Reeves is worth it. His voice isn’t the smooth and gentle stream George’s is, but it’s nonetheless an outstanding honky tonk vehicle. Smooth when it needs to be (“Donde Esta La Cerveza”), on target and guiltlessly unrelenting when the song calls for it. See the title track:
It’s gonna be a bad year for love
And hard times for Valentines
So liquidate your holdings
On your rings and dry your eyes
Head for your nearest tavern
And put your four wheel drive in gear
It’s gonna be a bad year for love
But a real good year for beer
Driven by a solid and inviting two-step beat, that track’s as good a drinking song as any of Gary Stewart’s best. Less anthemic, perhaps, but nonetheless a song you want to hear on a hardwood floor late on a smoky neon Saturday night.
And therein lies Reeves’ genius. With this record he’s not trying to be more than he is, but he’s something substantial anyway. It’d be easy to pop this record in and just enjoy it as background noise while you’re mucking stalls or having the fellas over for a poker night. Track to track, it never disappoints in that framework. But on closer inspection, it’s full of the sort of heartfelt and hard-won rural lyrics that originally made country music an art form all its own. Throw in that for this record Chris played all the lead and most of the rhythm parts, handled all the vocals, and handled much of the studio work, a complete picture of an artist passionate about his craft begins to emerge. Twenty years spent playing for and with some of Texas’ best obviously taught the man some lessons.
So maybe it’s not just all about the songwriters, after all. Not that Reeves can’t do that; he wrote or co-wrote three of the tracks on this record. But mostly what he did was pick some great songs that evoke memories of our best times and all the beauty of sawdust covered floors in little joints off of the backroad two-lane blacktop. Stylistically he’s as varied as it gets; tracks here would fit in the set lists of big name artists ranging from early Tritt (“Somebody’s Trying to Get Next to You”) through Gary P. Nunn (“Between You and Me”).
What we’ve got here, then, is an established and well respected professional musician beginning to spread his wings and evolve. Curious to see what his future records will bring. But this one’s got legitimate country stamped all over it, in authentic a fashion as one can find. It’s a shimmeringly beautiful record in a sunlight on Barton Springs kind of way, one that’ll fit just fine in your truck next to both Hank and Dale Watson. Yep. That good.
To share this article, copy this link:
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.
Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.