Editor’s note: Andy and I teamed up for our first ever collaborative review to discuss the newest album from Jon Wolfe. Different, for sure, but a ton of fun, too. Hope y’all enjoy! – Zack
Zack: So before we get started with the review, tell me about your experience with Jon Wolfe’s music and/or what inspired you to listen to this album?
Andy: Normally I approach modern throwback artists with some degree of skepticism, as I all too often feel my time is better spent exploring previous eras when searching for more traditional country music. But after seeing multiple positive reviews for Jon Wolfe’s latest, I decided to give him a shot.
Z: You know, it’s funny you say that, as I’m probably way more familiar with Jon Wolfe than I have any right to be. I remember regarding his 2015 Natural Man album as a nice remedy to the bro-country movement of the time, with enough of a likable charm in the overall 2000s-inspired yet very Texas-flavored sound … even if it wasn’t much different lyrically from what a lot of what was getting popular in Nashville around the time. Still, I’ve always felt the George Strait comparison to be an appropriate one with him, and while I admit to being a fairly insufferable wannabe traditionalist in 2015, I still regard the album as a fun listen.
I would, however, say he’s always fit closer to the modern neotraditional stylings of, say, Jon Pardi or William Michael Morgan rather than those ’90s icons he’s always tried to emulate, most notably on the weaker Any Night in Texas from 2017. And maybe even he’s realized that, considering this is his first album in four years and the critical buzz was suggesting it was his best yet. What’s your overall take on the project before we dive on further?
A: The album’s overall sound struck me as resembling that of the mid-2000s country I grew up on, only with a few modern flourishes. It’s not exactly hard-edged honky-tonk, but as far as releases targeted toward a general audience go, I imagine it’s about as traditional as country music gets in the year 2021. Your comparisons to William Michael Morgan and Jon Pardi are appropriate.
In terms of material, I found the album to be a bit of a mixed bag. There wasn’t much to actively dislike, but too many songs relied on stock country tropes and themes. Wolfe provides affable vocals performances that elevate them a bit, but there were only a handful of moments that stood out to me as truly memorable.
Overall, I found the album to be likeable and amiable, but don’t necessarily think it’s something I’ll feel the need to return to again and again.
Z: It’s funny, because I remember in our conversations about the album leading up to this review that you were initially high on it and I was cool on it, and now it seems like we’re somewhat reversed on it. While I won’t say it’s going to challenge for my favorite album of the year, as someone who’s always been somewhat of an easy sucker for the sound and thinks Wolfe has gotten passed by similar-minded artists such as Randall King and Triston Marez over the years (and for as much as I still like the former artist a bit more), this may actually be my favorite Wolfe album of the three I’ve heard.
You can tell by that opening instrumental that he had something of a cinematic vision for this album, and I do hear a lot of that in some of the production that relies heavily on gentle, warm acoustics and some well-balanced fiddle and pedal steel throughout. I mostly love the sound of this project for its pure organic precision, and when he adds in gentle touches of piano or atmospheric tones on tracks like “Why Can’t You,” “Two Hearts in Terlingua,” “Famous Among Fools,” and “I’ll Never Be the Same,” it’s a really good fit for him, especially with the added benefit of the horns anchoring “Tequila Sundown.” And I like that he can flip it around to add some appreciated muscle to tracks like “That’s What I’m Doin'” and “American Country Band” for some needed variety in tempo and overall sound. It’s very reminiscent of John Michael Montgomery in the way it trades between the uptempo and softer songs.
With that said, variety really is the key word here, as I’m not sure the concept is as fine-tuned as it could have been. At 17 tracks, it runs long and has more than its share of filler material, and while I do generally like the sound, there are plenty of moments where it feels less unique and just sort of formless and generic.
A: That all sounds about right to me. The sound occasionally teeters on the edge of scanning as generic, but it’s largely unobjectionable overall, and the more modern touches feel mostly organic and not forced. This should appeal to both modern and more traditional fans.
“Two Hearts in Terlingua” is a Western-style tale in the vein of Garth Brooks’ “In Lonesome Dove”, and ends with a nice twist I didn’t see coming. “Waiting on a Dog to Bark” features a clever premise and an excellent melody, and feels like a long lost hit from the early 2000s. “Famous Among Fools” and “Anybody Playin’ Sad Songs” are above-average neotraditional ballads that recall the best from ’90s neotraditional stalwarts like Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Lawrence.
However, too many tracks struck me as, while not unpleasant, a little forgettable. “I’m Your Guy”, “Runaway with Me”, “American Country Band”, “Tequila Sundown” – we’ve all heard these songs a million times before. They’re certainly not terrible, and I confess I probably like “Here’s to My Heroes” a little more than I should, but at 17 tracks and a length exceeding an hour, there’s a lot of fat that could be trimmed. I think I would like this album more if it was split in two; as it is, it’s just a lot to digest in one sitting.
Z: Funnily enough, most of those tracks you mentioned in your last paragraph kind of ended up working for me! But yes, in terms of the actual songwriting I’ve always been less sold on Wolfe’s approach, even if I think certain cuts here show a noticeable improvement for him. Again, the part of me that wishes this album pushed its underlying concept enjoys hearing a story song like “Two Hearts in Terlingua” – an old western divided among itself by an outlaw looking to score one last hit for him and his bride that’s not quite meant to be – but that’s pretty much it. “Why Can’t You (Conrad’s Song)” is a tribute to a fallen friend … only the song never focuses that much on the titular character. Which, granted, isn’t bad. I like the overall focus of how his death has impacted the narrator and the town in which he once resided, and there’s enough emotionally in the performance to hook me in regardless.
But my particular batch of songs in the “good but not great reinterpation of familiar themes” camp would likely include “Here’s To All My Heroes,” “A Cowgirl Like You,” “I’m Your Guy,” “Beers We Ain’t Drank Yet,” and “Lost Cause Like Me,” the last of which tries to go for shit-kicking hell-raiser vibes and feels out of place for Wolfe’s style. He’s reserved in a way that reminds me a lot of, say, Josh Turner or Alan Jackson, which isn’t a bad for it for solid laidback tracks like “Tequila Sundown” or “Waitin’ On A Dog to Bark.” Or “I’ll Never Be the Same,” which I really like for framing neither party in the wrong regarding their inevitable breakup; they’re just two different people, and he’s happier with the simple life while she needs something more.
But you also have a dud like “When the Good Ol’ Boys Age Out,” which delivers the sort of preachy, scattershot social commentary on the “good ol’ days” that feels misguided in its point. Which is a shame, because I actually really like the amped-up chorus aiming for stomping grit.
Granted, nothing outside of that track is really bad to me, but it’s an ambitious album in concept let down by a lack of ambition in its execution that sacrifices momentum and consistency for agreeable – but not quite spectacular – tones.
A: I couldn’t agree more with your take on “When The Good Old Boys Age Out”. I’m all for celebrating the lives of ordinary hard-working people, but songs that denigrate some amorphous “other” and a promote an “us vs. them” narrative rarely work for me. I had the same problem with Travis Tritt’s recent “Smoke in a Bar”. I do like the hard-charging chorus and overall Waylon-esque beat, though.
Other than that track, there’s nothing on this album that I really dislike, but at the same time, I’m not sure there’s anything strong enough that will cause this album to stand out in a sea of releases of similar quality. The songs are well-performed and Jon exhibits a lot of charisma, but I want to like this album a little more than I do. However, you could certainly do a lot worse, and it’s definitely worth at least one listen.
Z: Agreed. There’s some good standouts – which is to expected with 17 songs – and this is likely Wolfe’s best album yet. But I keep thinking this should have been better, especially when it has the bones and potential for it. As it is, I did have fun with this, and I enjoyed our own back-and-forth musings. Worth a listen, but I want to hear what a more robust take on this sound could bring. He’s close.
- Zack’s favorite tracks: “Two Hearts in Terlingua,” “Famous Among Fools,” “American Country Band,” “Why Can’t You (Conrad’s Song),” “Anybody Playin’ Sad Songs,” “I’ll Never Be The Same”
- Zack’s least favorite track: “When the Good Ol’ Boys Age Out”
- Andy’s favorite tracks: “Two Hearts in Terlingua”, “Famous Among Fools”, “Anybody Playin’ Sad Songs”
- Andy’s least favorite track: “When the Good Ol’ Boys Age Out”