Jerrod Medulla: Speak Easy CD Review

Texas music of late seems stuck on stop in another of its periodic pendulum swings where the college kids and the DJs think only one particular sound counts.  One could be forgiven for having thought the whole Red Dirt thing would’ve run its course by now.  That movement had its moments, and some of its stalwarts are making better music now than they ever have before.  So no knock on the scene, or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days.  But heaven have mercy, and with apologies to Waylon, hasn’t this Red Dirt shit done got out of hand?

Wasn’t always thus.  There was a time when Texas music was every bit as big as Texas itself.  The “why” behind all that was simple to understand, too.  In a nutshell, what sets Texas apart is that it remains a place where you are supposed to dream big.  Not just a place where anybody can do so – that’s the paltry American dream.  In the Lone Star state, having the ability to shoot for the stars isn’t anywhere near enough.  Rather, aiming high is exactly what everyone is supposed to do.  The history books are brimming with fantastic tales of men and women who took that expectation to its fullest extent.  It’s not just an Anglo-centric cultural thing, either.  Something about the land itself, and what it requires in order for mankind to extract a living, gets rooted down deep in the soul.  You want Texas dreamers?  Forego the usual route with Stephen Austin and company; start with Buffalo Hump.  His dreams came in the form of a vision, and resulted in a Comanche raid to the sea that still gets talked about today.  Go read up on Cabeza de Vaca, and how his dreams worked out.  But before you mourn for him, remember that he swung for the fences before ballparks were even invented.  Think of the Parker family, and the myriad and widely varied prices they paid for their dreams.  Yet theirs remains a frontier story which in the end brought a measure of forgiveness, and even unexpected unity between warring peoples.  You could also saddle up and ride a piece with Audie Murphy, whose Texas roots and mindset played hell with Nazis during WWII.  That was a man right there, the one leading all the other good ones who were running to the sound of the guns.  But while you’re trying to remember what you think you’re supposed to know about Audie, here’s something you probably didn’t know:  he wrote songs in his later years.  Songs recorded by renowned performers as widely disparate as Dean Martin and Charley Pride.  You can look it up.

That’s Texas.  And that’s Texas music, too.  The real music, the honestly good stuff, only flows from the deepest wells.  It sparkles and refreshes like the purest waters from the oldest springs, and it dances just as mightily in the midst of tornadoes as it does under a summer sun.  Lone Star dreamers being what they are, and the place being what it is, the depths and breadths of Texas music wind up peerless in the world.  For every Lightnin’ Hopkins, a Doug Sahm.   For every Willie Nelson, a Selena.  ZZ Top to Janis, Jerry Jeff Walker to Cary Swinney, and all points in between.  These are the lessons the hardcore “Texas Country” fans are missing.  Nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying the hell out of a Kevin Fowler show, or feeling like just maybe Pat Green wrote a song about your life.  But it’s a crime against your soul to neglect the journey past the pretty sounding cover boys and into the depths of what Texas music is worth.

That’s where Jerrod Medulla comes in.   Raised in Tuscola, TX, a little bitty town down south of Abilene, Medulla’s got all the native cred he needs.  Fifth generation Texan on his mama’s side, y’all.  Did the ranch work, stayed close to the family, earned his stripes and let the storied roots of his raising run deep.  Here’s where the road gets a little interesting, though.  On his daddy’s side, those roots are straight from Sicily.  Your own thoughts on La Cosa Nostra and all the Godfather clichés aside, Sicilians aren’t far removed from Texans in the ways that they’ll band together and buck the odds.  Or in their fanatic devotion to exceptional food.  The two groups just come at it all from different perspectives.  Which means Medulla often found himself in the middle growing up.  Unlike some who opt for said middle’s easy rolling gait, however, this kid decided it all needed to be taken in.  So while he was tacking up a working horse and earning his saddle sores, he was also spending time in the kitchen with a paring knife and the oral tradition of family recipes.  With music from both family trees providing depth and color to the worlds he was making his own.  Not a bad way to grow up, but also one that sorta sets a high bar in terms of expectations.  How’s a kid deliver on all that?

He pays his dues around Lubbock for several years while attending college and working as a surgical tech.  Hones his craft, finds his voice, and somewhere along the way also finds that others appreciate what he’d hidden away and thought of as mainly a personal hobby.  Eventually he goes ahead and answers music’s call, making it a career instead of an option.  And a record like Speak Easy is the result.

If the title doesn’t give it away, the album artwork will – this ain’t any of the Hanks we’re talking about.  Not a whole lot of straight-ahead country goodness.  And that’s a refreshingly wonderful thing.  There may be more than a little dirt on Medulla’s boots, but there’s an utter absence of Red Dirt clichés in his music.  The whole picture starts to coalesce as soon as you pick up the jewel case.  What Medulla’s done here is go whole-hog with the album concept.  Not many around Texas these days do this anymore, and it’s often due more to price constraints than to desire.  But just as is the case with a new Brian Burns record, it’s always a joy to find an artist who’s after the whole shebang.  Speak Easy sets a tone for retro styles, old cars and suspenders, while invoking just a whiff of some bourbon or maybe a freshly opened can of Pearl.  Pop the disc in and hit play, you get all that aura plus a damned sight more.

Songs are all over the map, genre-hopping as easily as the gearshift on a well-maintained old truck.  Pop ‘em into place, step on the gas and go, that sort of feel.  Some cuts (“Shouldn’t Be Doin’ This,” “Hey”) are swampy and grimy, haunting in a coastal bayou sort of way.  Think Tony Joe White.  Or if you’re a fan of HBO’s True Blood, think Jace Everett’s growl and that dissonant guitar on the show’s intro song.   It takes a level of mastery to set this sort of mood, sustain it, and get down in the crevices of a listener’s soul.  Medulla makes it happen.  Other tracks sound as if they could have come from completely different records, but Jerrod makes the pieces fit.  “Don’t Say You Don’t” captures the energy, excitement and anticipation of dusk on a Saturday night the way Bryan Adams used to circa the Cuts Like a Knife album when we were all young and the world was our stage.  “Rockport Wave,” on the other hand, embodies the spirit and joy of the Texas coast every bit as ably as Buffett ever made us understand Key West.  Does it without slipping into Buffett/Chesney clichés, too.  This is real surf rock, the kind anyone who’s fought a big one on the line trying to concentrate on the fish instead of on the campfire later understands.  All the sounds of Gulf waves and buddies and rum right here.  Listen to this song without thinking real hard about firing up the truck and heading for Mustang Island.  Dare ya.

That’s how the genius of Jerrod Medulla works.  His songs espouse and regularly enhance all the best aspects of life in Texas.  But they do it without worn-out references to I-35, Shiner, and Luckenbach.  There’s a steel guitar, but it doesn’t get left alone just crying in the night.  Here, it adds bounce and joy.  Credit both Medulla’s songwriting and exceptional production work from Chuck Allen Floyd and Matt Nolen.  Speak Easy is one of the best sounding records you’ll hear in 2012, but it’s never over-produced.  Just right.  The studio work, which too often gets in the way, here serves simply to hold the door open and usher listeners in for the panoramic view.  Puts us in mind of the way Kevin Higgins’ jaw-dropping Find Your Shine record sounded, and Speak Easy works just as well on many levels.

Majority of the songs are Medulla originals, but as is often the case with the best artists, some fantastic covers and overlooked nuggets from others make the playlist as well.  The standout here is “Rough Crowd,” a Bobby Pinson tune.  Pinson was BMI’s 2009 songwriter of the year, and his songs are regularly recorded by Nashville’s brightest stars.  The fact that those folks choose other tunes and ignore this one tells you all you need to know about Music Row.  But listen to Medulla inhabit every inch of this tune and you will get a shiver down your spine.

Those who dance on the dark side

Live in hell for most of their lives

Fighting back their demons

On the road they’re headed down

The ramblers and the rogues and rakes

You’d think would push him away

But he was always somewhere to be found

Thank God Jesus runs with a rough crowd

The obvious cover in the track list is “Drive,” that old ‘80s standard from The Police.  Don’t let that throw you, though.  Medulla out-Stings, well, Sting.  Sings the song the way it should have been sung, imbues it with the nuance and meaning all those synthesizers obscured back in the day.  If you’ve ever heard Springsteen’s stripped-down version of “Born in the USA” from the 18 Tracks album, you know what we mean.  This cover lets the real song out.  Fantastic stuff.

It’s been a long time since an artist as promising, as talented, and as genuinely humble and friendly as Jerrod Medulla has stumbled onto the stage of Texas music.  Won’t say he’s the second coming of Sir Doug, but will say he appears as willing to play with wide ranges of sounds and atmospheres as Sahm ever was.  Maybe not the conjunto and salsa and whatnot, but still.  A wide range.  This early in a career, it’s a refreshing a promising sign.  All the legends in Texas got legendary by carving out their own trails; they did it their way.  Plenty of followers did just fine as well, but legends never follow.  They jump off the shoulders of giants and lead.  Keep an eye on Jerrod Medulla.  There’s a better than even money chance you’ll find yourself down the line wanting to say you knew about him back when. for more details and some darn cool Merch.

~ Dave Pilot

Ed. Note:  It has been a long time since the 80’s.  Dave regrets attributing “Drive” to The Police, when it fact it was The Cars’ song.  He meant to say Medulla out-Ocasek’d, well, Ocasek.  Dave does clearly remember, though, that Ric Ocasek somehow married Paulina Porizkova.  And she’s still smokin’ hot.

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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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