Random Musings: Oct. 6, 2021

Random Musings is a recurring series in which we discuss some of things we’ve been listening to in an informal, conversational manner, as opposed to giving them a full-on, conventional review.

Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone (2021)

Jackson is back with his first album in six years. It’s far from his best, maybe even very far, but it’s good. The good news is that it’s yet another Alan Jackson album. The bad news is that it’s yet another Alan Jackson album.

The stunning rumination on aging in “The Older I Get” contains one nugget of wisdom after another and is one of the strongest songs he’s recorded in recent years. “Things That Matter” is a kind of song that has been done before, but Alan gives it a great deal of emotional resonance. I also really like “Chain”, which feels and sounds a lot more edgy than what we usually get from Alan.

Another highlight, “The Boot”, admittedly pulls from the overdone “Chiseled in Stone” formula of an older, world-weary character giving important life advice to a younger character, but Jackson’s earnest performance totally makes it work for me. It’s incredibly corny and incredibly moving at the same time, and I’m not sure anyone but Alan could pull it off. Interestingly, this is a rare example of the narrator being the old man in the song, not the younger person. (If you want to hear a clever parody of this type of song, check out “Old Blevins” by The Geezinslaw Brothers.)

My biggest issue with this album is that it clocks in at a whopping 83 minutes. While almost every track is some variation of “good” (save the boring checklist song “Back”), there’s not enough “great” to justify that length. I had the same problem with 2008’s overstuffed Good Time. There’s way too many neotraditional ballads that are well-executed, but start to feel a bit ordinary and run together after a while.

And then there’s the divisive title track. I understand where he’s coming from to an extent, but protest songs are so clichéd at this point that it’s a cliché to point out how clichéd they are. As someone who got really caught up in the whole “debate” in his younger years and often sounded like the old guy in the music video for Hank Williams Jr.’s “Young Country” (which just goes to show the more things change, the more they stay the same), I guess I’ve come to mellow out about the whole thing. As a result, songs like “Where Have You Gone” don’t really register with me anymore. And as numerous others have pointed out, this song doesn’t say anything that “Murder on Music Row” didn’t say more sharply over two decades ago, and feels like a pointless rehash.

Anyway, this is overall just a mid to lower-tier album in Alan’s discography, but he couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. There’s some weak links, but on balance they’re outweighed by enough strong material.

Doc Watson – Southbound (1965)

Doc Watson’s second solo release is an even tighter experience than his debut. He deftly covers a variety of folk standards, provides a few sterling original compositions, and reworks songs that were mainstream country hits, like Mel Tillis’ “Walk on Boy” and Tom Paxton’s oft-recorded “The Last Thing on My Mind”. The production is wonderfully sparse and minimalist, and each instrument shines through beautifully, Watson’s angelic voice not least among them. There’s not a whole lot for me to say about this album other than I can’t recommend it enough.

Mary Gauthier – Mercy Now (2005)

One of my favorite things as a country music fan growing up was when a mainstream artist covered an alt-country/Americana/indie/underground/whatever artist, exposing me to their work and giving me an “in” into their discography. It’s through the Dixie Chicks I got into Bruce Robison and Patty Griffin, through Gary Allan I got into Jesse Winchester and Todd Snider, through Miranda Lambert I got into Fred Eaglesmith and John Prine, and on and on.

I remember being struck by the final track on Blake Shelton’s 2004 album Barn & Grill called “I Drink”, a biting character sketch of a lonely middle-aged person who’s unhappy in life but really can’t change their nature. It was littered with highly memorable, detailed imagery, like heating up a chicken nugget TV dinner, that made the song feel strikingly realistic and all too relatable. It was originally recorded by Mary Gauthier (she wrote the song with Crit Harmon), and I regret that it’s taken me this long to begin to explore her discography. I decided to start with 2005’s Mercy Now.

The poignant title track is a work of wonder, as Gauthier’s twangy, craggy voice pleas for mercy for various entities. The invocation begins as personal, as she asks for help for her aging father and troubled brother, but then extends it to her country, and then finally to all living things. It sounds trite and sentimental, but trust me when I say that my description doesn’t even begin to it do it justice.

Other highlights include a fine cover of Fred Eaglesmith’s uneasily ambiguous “Your Sister Cried”, the alt-country banger “Prayer Without Words”, and the mournful lost love ballad “Drop in the Bucket”. And her version of “I Drink” improves on Blake Shelton’s cover in every way.

There’s some really great cello, banjo, steel work throughout the album, and several tracks are punctuated by a Hammond B-3 organ, creating a highly distinctive sound. It was produced by Gurf Morlix, who seems to produce so many of my favorite alt-country artists. This was an exceptional album and one I’ve already played several times, and I can’t wait to further delve into her discography.

Jamie O’Hara – Rise Above It (1994)

Jamie O’Hara died earlier this year. I’ve always greatly admired his songwriting ability, as he’s written several of my all-time favorite tunes by artists like Gary Allan and George Jones, and I decided to check out his debut solo album. He also performed in the late ’80s as a member of the duo The O’Kanes, but I confess I’m not yet familiar with their music.

To be frank, his voice is thin and not very distinctive, but the songs are so strong it hardly matters. There are a few obvious filler tracks (closer “I’m Livin’ For You” especially) – but songs like the uncomfortably true “(Some People) Just Can’t Walk the Line”, the somber tribute to fallen Vietnam soldiers “50,000 Names”, and the devastating “The Cold Hard Truth” are all stellar. The songs are given a neotraditional production typical of early ’90s mainstream country, but his voice isn’t twangy any at all, creating a bit of an odd incongruity. It’s a little like Collin Raye on his earlier albums.

Overall, I’m left with the impression that O’Hara possessed a wonderful gift to write country songs, but didn’t necessarily have the vocal chops to make them come alive. He needed artists like George Jones and Trisha Yearwood for that – a match made in Heaven, given that those artists were rarely songwriters. I quite liked this album, but I’m not sure any of these renditions can compete with the better-known versions by other artists, even though they are perfectly enjoyable in and of themselves.

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