More and more often of late it seems clear that the still beating heart of traditional country music is hellbent on telling the world it didn’t die. No one listening to mainstream radio understands that point just yet, of course, but that may soon change. Country’s history is fraught with wild pendulum swings, from Hank Williams to Kenny Rogers and back again. Simple economics, really; the suits in Nashville put out what the masses will buy. With high profile Music Row acts (acts, not necessarily artists, mind you) such as Tim McGraw and Kellie Pickler making waves these days about contractual woes and a desire to be themselves, one has to anticipate that a fan base will re-emerge that wants to hear “real” country music again. It’s follow the leader up there in Tennessee, always has been and likely always will be.
So when the change happens and the pendulum swings again, it’s going to be important to remember two things:
There have always been artists out on the edges of notoriety making genuine music for the soul, regardless of whether Nashville opted to promote it to the masses.
Whoever makes it work in Nashville with a “traditional” sound that’s about as authentic as Kevin Fowler acting like he’s a legitimate Texas artist will energize The Great Unwashed and begin driving what seems to be a resurgence of the good stuff. This will create opportunities for the yous and mes of the world to connect these suddenly rabid pseudo-traditionalists to those artists noted in #1 above.
The artists in question here of course include the well-known stalwarts like Dale Watson, perhaps the most deserving of the old school traditionalists yet also one of the most edgy and entertaining artists of the past several years. Songs like “Blessed or Damned” and “Whiskey or God” connect to this modern world in a way that some of, say, Lefty’s catalog couldn’t do. Meaning that Dale’s been the guy all along proving that country can evolve and be relevant without losing its firmly rooted foundation. If you’re reading this, you likely agree on Dale and also have a handful of personal favorites you’d add to the mix. So you get the gist. What we’re here to talk about today is simply the fact that when the change comes and the educational conversations can begin to occur, you’re going to need to include North Carolina’s own Eric Strickland in the discussion.
Strickland’s been around the music business for two decades running, and has been involved in a wide range of bands and sounds. All of which helped him immensely from a perspective of understanding how to compile a solid band and create a holistic sound that supports and drives a song instead of simply comprising one. There’s a distinctive line of separation between a beautiful sound and ear candy, and it appears that’s a lesson Strickland learned well during his years in the trenches. Honky Tonk Til I Die is his second release, but the first one was a couple of iterations ago with a different band and succumbed to the usual challenges of funding and experience as the studio process worked itself out. It’s out there, but not one Strickland will bandy around. That said, it had value in terms of lessons learned: The challenges plaguing that debut are in no way evident on this new release. What you hear on Honky Tonk Til I Die is a crisp, ringing sound that smells of sawdust floors and the beer-stained Saturday nights of legend. Multiple tracks here would have served quite well as backdrops for a slow dance between Bud and Sissy at Gilley’s back in the day, yet the sound is anything but dated or stale. Production is crisp and clean, but without the machined soul-sucking precision that seems to starve the life out of most mainstream productions. If you can’t quite figure out what that means, try to imagine a studio version of Kenny Chesney singing “L.A. Freeway” and then bounce that piece of mental cyanide off your memories of Jerry Jeff Walker’s take on the old Guy Clark chestnut. If that still doesn’t work, crank up Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis on “Angry All the Time” and then try not to drift off to dream while you listen to Tim and Faith cover it.
Now you’ve got the picture. What Strickland and company have done here is put together a number of very serviceable (not always great, but on occasion quite compelling) lyrics that allow them to play to a crowd, not over them. And they’ve backed it up with a web of precise instrumentation that augments and exposes the meaning, instead of just polishing off the edges and sanding out the soul. In fact, this is one of the best uses of a steel guitar throughout an album that I can think of in some time. Credit that to Ray Walker (of Walker Seats, an NC company that built its name on making things work for the guy on the pedal steel) This is the rare record which works as well on a neon night as it does in the truck on the way to a feed store. A steel can make or break a sound, and here what it does is weave through and augment a whole lot of terrific playing from the rest of the band. It’s a tight unit, and clearly a bunch of guys who have loved country music for a very long time. You’ll catch familiar hints of influences throughout, but never in a shameless knockoff kind of way. As noted with Dale above, an example of how a committed band can make what’s familiar seem fresh and vital. It’s a truly beautiful thing.
Strickland’s got a huge voice, and sometimes (as in the title track) it’s used well but not perhaps to its full potential. There are instances where the tenor gets a bit nasal and hits a note well but doesn’t inhabit it; there’s a bit of a ringing in the ear drums that ensues. But that’s not the norm, and when Strickland does cut his vocals loose, they can stop you where you stand. This is perhaps best illustrated on “Standing In the Headlights,” a song which could have competed with the best of those from Doug Stone and Alan Jackson for a chart-topping spot if it had been released in the early ‘90s. Full of that new traditional sound and arrangement, and sung by a guy who seems like his soul is on fire, this is a beautiful, beautiful song. It’s followed by a couple of trucking songs, always a risky move given that the life expectancy on that genre played out years ago. But listen closely here, because Strickland is no schlock-meister pawning off a “Teddy Bear” or a “Convoy” on you. Instead, he gets at the heart of both a trucker’s hardworn concrete life (similar, in some respects, to that of a road dog musician) and the still relevant reality that without truckers, we don’t live the lives we live. It’s good stuff, the kind that can make you stop twirling your partner around the floor long enough to raise a longneck and say thanks to the guys who keep the Walmarts stocked.
When the dust settles, Honky Tonk ‘Til I Die is a nice little gem of a country record. The lyrics have purpose, the musicianship is impeccable, and some of the songs come out of left field and surprise you with an unstoppable urge to sing along. It’s country done right, suitable for tack rooms and beer joints from sea to shining sea.
You can find Eric and company on YouTube (the ReverbNation page is a bit dated, but also exists) and draw your own conclusions. Strickland’s also a reliable presence on Facebook. Doesn’t tour outside of the Carolinas much at the moment, but you may find yourself wanting to play booking agent and see if you can’t help change that a bit.
Oh, yeah, one last thing: Don’t miss the hidden track.
~ Dave Pilot
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. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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