Thomas Michael Riley’s been a terrific storyteller for a long damn time. Nine CDs on the market, and a slew of Top 10 hits on the Texas Music Chart. Flat-out one of the most soothing, comfortable, old wore out pair of jeans voices you’re ever going to hear. 2010’s Tommy, declared Album of the Year by The Texas Music Awards and The Academy of Texas Music, deftly illustrates the breadth of artistry and the stone cold songwriting talent Riley possesses. It’s a gem of a record, particularly effective on a couple of very different levels.
As something to pop in the truck dash and listen to while you’re watching sunrises and chewing up blacktop, Tommy is an essential. Beautiful, flowing melodies. Strings that dance together like Johnny and June. And that voice. Riley’s thick, rich, astonishing baritone is an instrument unto its own, the sort of distinctive sound normally associated with a couple of Watsons (Dale and Gene) or Vern Gosdin. In a style unique and disparate from any of those, Riley still churns out songs that take you drifting away in a heartbeat on the sensibilities of the vocals alone. And you won’t ever mistake his voice for anyone else’s once you’ve heard it. If you’ve ever heard a German shepherd bark in an inside voice when begging for a treat, then you’ve got a sense of why this sound is so effective. It’s full of power and possessed of a booming quality, yet it’s delivered in a reserved and understated fashion belying the depth and validity of the lyrics. Some sort of magical, hell, ethereal quality that’s difficult to describe. But it’s not to be missed.
Beautiful, mesmerizing, and soothing as the voice may be, though, don’t let it lull you to sleep. It’s easy to allow Riley’s songs to be just background music, and as noted above, they work exceedingly well in that capacity. But beneath the easy on the ears surface bubbles a blast furnace. Stories on Tommy range from the belatedly cognizant (“Leather ‘n Loaded”) through the bitterly brutal (“Deathbed Confession”). In the first it’s easy to think at first listen it’s just another rousing honky-tonk anthem. The final verse, though, puts a skewer through the heart of any man who’s ever gone out looking for a tiger in the neon forest when he already had one at home. And in the record’s final track, as life slips slowly away, a tender and loving confession of past transgressions is answered with something not quite mutually accepting. First listen, the message gets past you. Second time around, focused on the words, your heart jumps into your throat. The consistent message, apparent throughout the record? Riley’s got a handle on his own shortcomings and vulnerabilities, and he’s not hiding from them. There’s a quiet strength which flows from that realization in any of our lives if we’re fortunate enough to reach that point. That quiet strength allows this record to tell introspective stories most of us would shy away from, but need to hear, and does it in a way that makes us feel somehow comforted.
And therein lies the genius of Thomas Michael Riley. His music’s genuine and it’s genuinely effective. He can take you to babbling Hill Country rivers and warm summer days as effortlessly as he can take you to Death’s doorstep. His songs are often the life Gus McCrae would’ve lived if the old Ranger had been born in the 20th century. And that includes the awareness of a higher power, evidenced in Riley’s bare-knuckled and beautiful track “Carrying a Cross.” Not many songs you run across about the Lord and redemption contain references to cursing and open bottles of Beam in a truck cab. And when they do, they apologize for said activities. Not this one. It gets past those ephemeral things quickly, and gets at the beating heart of what faith is honestly all about. Worth the price of admission on its own, yet surrounded by other tracks of equal or surpassing quality, this cut’s a keeper. As is Tommy, and the man who recorded it.
www.thomasmichaelriley.com when you’re ready to be entertained, enlightened, and unassumingly but thoroughly blown away.
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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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