JUD BLOCK: Barroom Gravity

Over a period of a decade or so between 2002 and, well, just a few months ago, a band out of Charlotte, North Carolina cut loose some of the most incisive and powerful music nobody and their brother ever heard.  The band was called Cattletruck, and it billed itself as Southern Gothic rock and roll.  Whatever the hell that means.  Perhaps the best description of the band was this, from its little corner of the interwebs Here.

The perfect soundtrack for a drunken wrong turn on an unlit backwoods country road.


What the band had going for it was a torrent of intelligent, belligerent, unapologetic and generally pessimistic lyrics from frontman and founder Jud Block.  Check the site above and listen to the sample from “Steve Earle’s Blues” for confirmation on all of the above.  Cattletruck also had an occasional ear for the power ballad, or what passes for one of those much-aligned but much-beloved anthems in the roots rock world.  “Short Straw” was one of the best songs you’ve never ever heard, and while it’s hard to find these days, if you run across it you’ll see what I mean.

But the downfall of the band, and Block’s rock ‘n roll dream, was simply its location.  Charlotte ain’t the sort of city that appreciates rough-hewn and bare-knuckle anything, at least outside of the corporate banking boardrooms that dominate the Uptown area along Trade and Tryon streets.  And let’s face it, those professional brawls, brutal as they can be, don’t measure up to what can happen on an unlit backwoods country road.  Or in the best beer joints, for that matter.  But because the geography gods frowned on Cattletruck and birthed the band in Charlotte, it was doomed.  No drawing power from the populace in that straight-laced if somewhat shallow and mundane pseudo-metropolis.  And no comparative bands in the area driving the local recording studios to have the expertise to capture a wall of sound and translate it to CD.  Or MP3.  Or anything else.  So the band’s first record did nothing resembling justice to its live sound, and the ripples didn’t go where they could have.  Blame Charlotte.

Block, though, dark as he is both in stage persona and at times in real life, is no quitter.  He managed to ramrod a second album out of Cattletruck before its demise, and it was damned good.  But despite his efforts, and perhaps in some degree due to some musical growth on Block’s part, Cattletruck succumbed to the ether.  The band’s dissolved, and a decade’s worth of ass-lighting live shows that raised the roof and set eyebrows on fire is a memory.

Jud Block, however, is just getting started.  His personal roots run an interesting line between Fort Worth, Texas and the Florida Panhandle.  Not necessarily a saltwater cowboy in the Buffett vein, and certainly something much more sinister than the somewhat clichéd old captain ever produced.  But think, maybe, Randy Newman instead of Buffett.  Or Newman and Zevon, channeling Cash’s pissed off and strung out ghost.  That’s in the ballpark.  What Block’s done is take the soul of his music, and its inherent strength based on blistering and ultra-intellectual lyrics, and make it accessible.  Where Cattletruck at times tried too hard to be a punk band and cram 3000 words into a one minute and thirty second song, Jud’s solo debut, Barroom Gravity, takes Guy Clark’s old adage into account.  It recognizes that the best parts of a song are often the ones left out.  It still gets wordy at times, in the old Cattletruck vein, but the shouting and the screaming guitars are gone.  What’s left is powerful, time-worn, occasionally ethereal, but always incisive and on target.  Take these lines from the “The New Underground,” the record’s leadoff track:

I’ve got Cash tattooed on my right arm

Hank scrolled on my left

I think Outlaw Country starts and ends

With Carnival of Excess

I wear a trucker cap and not a cowboy hat

As proof I ain’t one of them

Nashvegas, it can kiss my ass

Until Music Row will let me in

Just don’t tell me if you’ve heard this one before

‘Cause I’m selling it as a brand new sound

Hank III wannabes

And outlaw accountants

Welcome to the new underground

That’s Block at his sardonic and satirical best, commenting without fear on the majority of his fellow “artists” in the Piedmont area of the Carolinas.  Rest assured regional standouts like David Childress and Michael Reno Harrell aren’t targets here, but much of the newer breed definitely have a bulls-eye on their foreheads.  And brother, I’ve heard ‘em all – it’s deserved.  What’s unusual is someone in that artist community being willing to call a spade a spade.  But it would be unusual to find an instance where Block won’t do exactly that.  And that’s a considerable part of his draw.  When he’s voicing a character to make a point, as in the above-mentioned track or the easy-listening but raw as hell “At Your Service,” Jud’s masterful at turning a phrase.  Alternately, when he’s hearing Flannery O’Connor’s ghosts in his head (Town Commons, McCarthy’s Ellipsis), you’re going to be far more unsettled than you were back in grade school when that teacher made you read “The Lottery” and you were pulling the whole time for those people to win.

Interestingly, however, there’s more to the man and much, much more to the music.  When Block fronted Cattletruck, unleashing live shows that could compete at times with Jason and the Scorchers, there was a character to hide behind.  A filter, or a veil, maybe, that protected him from an audience’s pointed gaze.  It hampered his songs at times, kept some of the honesty boxed up and put safely away.  But no more.  With “Fort Worth Fadeaway,” one of this record’s truly stellar cuts, Jud bares himself and his autobiographical history in unrelenting lines.  It’s a gem, in itself alone worth the price of the CD.  There’s also this, from “One Good Choice,” an ode to the exceptional woman who has stood by Block faithfully for years now:

Unsound expectations and a half-empty look at life

A twisted sense of humor,

Still you agreed to be my wife

You bust my ass about drinking

But I know it’s out of love

For some reason you want me around,

And that I’m suspicious of.

Well life can be lived by mistake,

Or the sound of a single voice,

But in a lifetime of bad decisions

You’ve gotta make one good choice

Now that, folks, is a love song you and me and my wife and your girlfriend and that guy over there and the girl behind the bar and everybody driving too fuckin’ slow in the passing lane on the freeway can by-God identify with.  Forget the flowers and daisies, get real.  We’re all fucked up in our own self-conscious and/or self-righteous and ignorant ways.  So when love finds us anyway, more than being filled with happiness, we find ourselves, well, astounded.  Grateful.  And unselfishly inspired to reciprocate.  And here’s a guy who gets it, gets it on levels Jerry Jeff implied but glossed over when he sang “Long Old Dusty Road.”  And there’s your comparison.  Jud Block is becoming a storyteller of the first order, in the vein of the original Lone Wolf in Austin all those long, long years ago.  There’s plenty of room to grow, yes.  But leaving Cattletruck in his rearview and storming the mic with stories all his own is the best move Block could have made.  He’s smarter than you and me, and he knows it, but he’s not a didactic and boring sumbitch in the way one of his idols, James McMurtry, can occasionally be.  Instead, he’s an observer pointing out the things the rest of us miss.  Helping us revel in them at times, reminding us at others that everybody else out there is as scared and as messed up as we are.  Somehow that helps make it okay.

And that, boys and girls, is the mark of an artist.  This guy was intimidating with a screaming Telecaster in his hands and a Black Flag obsession on his set list.  With an acoustic guitar and a studio man who knows how capture lyrics, Block’s evolving before our eyes into something much, much more substantial.

Go visit him at www.reverbnation.com/judblock to judge for yourself.   Thank me later.

~Dave Pilot

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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.

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