Some music careers just roll along easily, one record after another, terrific offering upon terrific offering. Smooth, unaffected, heartfelt, solid. Think Max Stalling, or maybe Robert Earl Keen. Others seem to exist solely for the purpose of stacking exclamation points and hand grenades one atop another. An artist releases a CD, fans snap it up, and every last listener thinks to him or herself, well, this is it. The mountaintop. All downhill from here, because this guy can’t write any better songs than these.
And that’s how it’s been with every new Jackson Taylor release since Goin’ Down Swingin’ left Hollow Eyed and Wasted in the dust. No slight to the latter; that record was a pure slice of honky tonk genius wrapped in whiskey goodness and burning bright in the soulless wastes that pass for country music these days. Which means that when Let The Bad Times Roll landed in this reviewer’s grimy hands, with five or six records since Goin’ Down Swingin’ already on the market, it was hard to feel anything but trepidation. Honestly, when’s Jackson bound to hit his nadir, start plummeting back to Earth?
Dunno. But it wasn’t with this record. It’s intrinsically different on many levels from the astounding library which precedes it. Not quite as much whiskey and women, long legs and longnecks. Perhaps not the familiar levels of introspection where love’s vagaries, evils, and wonders are concerned. But a more mature feel, impressive in and of itself, and also a look at the bigger picture as it concerns these United States in this day and age. You’re forgiven if at a glance that makes you think of Steve Earle and James McMurtry. But if you’re the NPR type that appreciates the politics of those two, consider yourself warned. And if you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum, pissed off that any artist in any genre would hold forth on any topic political, well, listen anyway. With both the title track and the absolutely stellar “Old Henry Rifle,” Taylor lays out a wistful, powerful vision of what this country once was. He reminds us with swift uppercuts and unrelenting body blows that men built this nation. Flawed men, and men with checkered pasts, yes. And that at times we as a people were blinded by the foolishness of concepts like Manifest Destiny. But we took our lumps nonetheless, and above all we held ourselves accountable both for our lives and our actions and the resulting circumstances. All of which differs greatly from the current American milieu, regardless of where you find yourself on the political spectrum. And for that, Taylor’s a man to be honored.
But as usual on any record this guy releases, it’s not enough to simply paint with broad strokes. Fans will recall the bombast and beer-soaked revelry of “No Apologies” from The Whiskey Sessions album. They’ll also remember that the same record had an intensely introspective cut in “The Mirror” which, rather than belie the philosophy inherent in the no apologies approach, gave it girth and staying power. The same goes for Let the Bad Times Roll. The two tracks noted above, while unapologetic and boldly patriotic, also hew closely to the oh-so-American theme that to be a man, one actually has to conduct oneself as a man. Or woman. You get the drift. So it is telling in the extreme to hear Taylor sing in “No Show” of how he got himself twisted one night and brought an X-rated stage persona to a family show. It could feel throwaway and trite, until you realize he’s recited the whole sordid affair just to say that in hindsight he wishes he’d have no-showed, just like old George Jones. See how that works? Self-recognition, and the ability to learn from mistakes? Qualities men as flawed and as immoral as James Bowie once showed, and anyone from Texas can tell you the status that man’s legacy enjoys. “Boys In the Band” mines a similar vein in terms of self-awareness, although its focus is on one of the road’s great calling cards – the women who wind up backstage. And by the final note, you realize, well, maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. More than a little hard-earned wisdom in that song. Guy Clark once said that what makes a song great isn’t what you put in it, but what you leave out. And what this one leaves unsaid is a wealth of hard-earned wisdom. It’s a legacy of mistakes made, recognized, and not repeated. Those who don’t make the same mistakes twice, opting instead to just make new ones and learn new things tomorrow, are the trendsetters. They’re the best of us, excepting maybe only those who always run to the sound of the guns. And it’s a challenge, at best, to find another artist out there today who’s as adept at learning from his mistakes while remaining fully willing to share the knowledge with us as Jackson Taylor is.
As has become a tradition with any record from this band, there are cover tracks almost otherworldly in their rendering. Any aficionado of outlaw music remembers “Ain’t No God In Mexico.” But by the time you’re done listening to it here, you think it’s something new and alive. Even if you’ve never heard of Billy Joe Shaver, you’re a fan of his when this track’s through with you. Amazing the way Jackson consistently records covers from his heroes, songs that have meant the world to him, in a way which faithfully reinvents them and makes them his own. A tribute, really, both to the quality of the original and the impacts the songs have had in Taylor’s life. Normally it’d be an insult to note that looking for the cover on a new album is a highlight; with Taylor, it’s as big a compliment as can be, and it’s been that way for a number of records now. Not convinced? Try his version “Almost Persuaded” on for size. You may forget you’d ever heard of David Houston or Conway Twitty.
As has become the expected norm, Jackson Taylor has outdone himself once again. A big record, with a lot of big ideas, and whole hell of a lot of big noise. Plenty to drink, plenty to see, plenty to be flat out entertained with. But all underscored with a level of self-awareness, self-respect, and self-worth which is increasingly rare these days. Take these lines from “Someone Get Me Out of Here” as a closer, and see what I mean:
You’re so cruel
And you always will be
It makes you strong
To hurt the weak just like me
Yeah one day
Your beauty and youth it will fade
You’ll be all alone
In the bed that you made
And it’s just one of those nights
When nothing turns out right
So before I draw blood or tears
Someone get me out of here….
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.