The short version: Hot off the heels of a surge in popularity, Whiskey Myers swing for the fences with a self-titled, self-produced album, and don’t stick the landing all the way.
- Favorite tracks: “Little More Money,” “California To Caroline,” “Bury My Bones,” “Mona Lisa,” “Kentucky Gold”
- Least favorite track: “Bitch”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: In hindsight, it’s surprising that country and rock were (mostly) viewed as opposites of one another.
Granted, the roots are obviously tethered together, but I’m referring mainly to how it was viewed on one side versus another; with country music viewed as “uncool” when rockabilly showed up while, on the other side of the fence, someone like Gram Parsons wouldn’t be welcomed into Nashville for his rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
When looking at southern rock specifically, however, much like rockabilly, not only would most of this kind of material sound “too country” for country radio today, but even now, acts looking to foster either a throwback rockabilly or modern day southern rock sound find their home within the country music establishment … in one form or another.
And of some of the major southern rock outfits working today like, say, Blackberry Smoke, a band like Whiskey Myers has remained staunchly independent, with their only “mainstream” appeal being that they’ve worked with Dave Cobb on their previous two projects, 2016’s Mud and 2014’s Early Morning Shakes.
Yet it wasn’t until an appearance on Kevin Costner’s Yellowstone series that the band caught their biggest break, propelling their entire music catalog into the top 10 of the iTunes country chart. And with their newest self-titled album reportedly being self-produced, this looked like a good opportunity for the band to reintroduce themselves to a growing legion of fans.
Sadly, though, while Whiskey Myers is the band’s most ambitious project yet, it’s also their most bloated, inconsistent effort to date, meaning that, while the effort is noticeable, the pure quality doesn’t really fluctuate outside of a few highlights.
And I’m not sure where exactly to place the blame, as I’m more inclined to blame the mix balance rather than the production itself, if only because, fundamentally, this album shows the band doubling down on everything that’s made them great; the electric axes have a ton of potent firepower to them, enough to where it even sounds like the band leans into elements of sludge, at points. And when either the pedal steel, fiddles or harmonica come through, they’ve usually got a unique, ragged richness to them to blast through nicely. And when you factor in the strong melodic grooves courtesy of Cody Tate’s guitar playing, there’s a solid bounce to tracks like “Die Rockin’” and “Mona Lisa,” and a solid foundation for a good southern rock project.
Ironically, though, the mixing is as awkward as it was when Dave Cobb produced this band, if only because, outside of the Fleetwood Mac groove of “Little More Money” or the darker-sounding “California to Caroline,” the bass drum and bass guitar don’t really shine through, compromising some of those aforementioned grooves and not helping some of the nastier moments on this record shine through more without that low-end support. Like I just said, though, that’s a minor, consistent problem with the band; what’s most noticeable about this record is how poorly mixed lead singer Cody Cannon is compared with the instrumentation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to hear the McCrary Sisters share equal footing with him as backing singers, but Cannon is the kind of powerful, emotive singer who shouldn’t be low in the mix. And that’s not helped by some of the smaller details, like the trashy, unfitting vocal filters on “Bitch” or “Gasoline,” even if, in the case of the latter track, one could argue it’s meant to bolster the lyrical sentiment of drowning in misery.
What’s even more strange is that, once the album gets to “Little More Money,” that issue almost fades entirely, giving a track like “Kentucky Gold” all the crunch it needs to sell Cannon’s anger toward a disparaging class system. But while Cannon is adept at handling the tracks opting for swagger, he’s never been a subtle singer. You’d think for someone trying to sell the role of a weary journeyman on “Rolling Stone” looking to reconnect with his family that he’d try to underplay that sentiment for more effectiveness, or not sell a tale of hard times on “Hammer” with the same kind of bravado as similar tracks like on “Little More Money.” It’s not like he can’t have some real conviction behind his performances, though, as shown on “California To Caroline” where he faces real regrets from leaving someone behind to chase his dream. Even a more straightforward track like “Die Rockin’” carries enough earnest passion to feel like a true anthem for the band’s independent spirit.
But unlike their last project, Mud, this album isn’t as eclectic in sound or variety, with most of these tracks opting for similar chord progressions or a general formula of hard-charged, kickass southern rock with attitude. To be fair, that’s not a bad thing, but at 14 tracks, the only real moments of variety come through in the Celtic-inspired, folk-like “Bury My Bones” or the (mostly) stripped-down closer, “Bad Weather.” Otherwise, several tracks are reliant on grooves or hooks to help them stand out, with the former element undercut by weaker production and mixing, and the latter element just not standing out much. I wasn’t much of a fan of the lazier acoustic groove on “Running” going for more of a live feel, especially when coupled with Cannon’s stabs at higher notes on the chorus, but it also highlights later on how much the solos don’t stick out much aside from the scuzzier angst of “Mona Lisa.”
For southern-rock, lyrics aren’t normally a big selling point, except when they lean into southern pandering tropes, which is the lazier route to go with this particular style. This album, however, feels like the band’s response to their increased exposure, with that response being an odd mixture of bravado and burnout that raises more questions than it does answers.
Of course, part of that burnout is for the better, like how “Rolling Stone” keeps the band in check to not get too big for their britches and forget the people who really matter. But more often that not, the album feels split between those two aforementioned themes, causing these songs to run together far more often they should. And while I do like the takedown of modern country radio on “Bitch,” it feels disingenuous coming from a band that seems to have rewritten “Ballad Of A Southern Man” for every album (ironically, not on this one, though “Glitter Ain’t Gold” comes the closest to senseless posturing).
Sadly, too, outside of certain tracks with more stakes to their stories, some tracks can’t rise above cliché. I enjoy the nihilistic fury that comes through on “Gasoline,” but when it centers around a man who’s at the end of his rope in a dead-end town, a song like “Kentucky Gold” sticks out more, if only because it shades in the details as to how it came to that ending much better. Sure, tracks like “Die Rockin’” and “Mona Lisa” are the same brand of aggressive, righteously furious tracks fans have come to know and love from the band, but after awhile, it starts to wear thin, like on “Glitter Ain’t Gold.”
And outside of those songs, “Houston County Sky” shows two dead-end lovers looking toward one another for comfort, but with its weaker hook, I’m inclined to jump straight toward “Little More Money” where there’s more angst to the narrator’s plea for help. And while “Bad Weather” switches things up completely to end on a note where someone takes action for their past regrets, trying to win back a former lover at their wedding doesn’t make me sympathetic toward the narrator, even if failing means he’s ready to burn the world down. Conversely, though, when you have a track like “Bury My Bones” which embraces going down in flames in an anthemic manner built mainly off symbolism, it can work really well.
Overall, though, while I’d argue Whiskey Myers have gotten stronger with each project, their self-titled album isn’t so much a regression as it is just a bloated effort. Some of the minor production quibbles are still noticeable, and the writing, while strong in some spots, is also lacking in others. Really, Whiskey Myers feels overly ambitious, which is good in theory, but is also the album’s biggest fault. Still, the band haven’t lost their natural talent, so hopefully these elements can be sharpened for future projects, because they’ve got it in them to deliver some potent southern rock; I’d just argue this isn’t the best showcase of that.