(Editor’s note: Hey all, this will be my last post until at least Monday, October 17th, given that I’ll be going on vacation until then. Any site updates will be paused, though I plan to come back strong with new post ideas … and something for Loretta Lynn (as of now, this is the closest thing I have to an obituary/remembrance. Thank you, and see you all then! – Zack)
At this point, I’m always happy to see a new Hellbound Glory release, if only for standing as one of the last living links to the underground country movement of yesteryear … and standing as proof that Leroy Virgil is alive and well and still has it. Granted, at this point, the band name really does center squarely around Virgil and his hard-living ways (and self-deprecating songwriting), but he’s also the thread that connects modern classics like Old Highs and New Lows to more recent efforts, like the solid return to form of 2020’s Pure Scum. And whereas that album stood as a tribute to Reno, Nevada – the setting for and inspiration behind many past Hellbound Glory songs – Nobody Knows You is a more tempered offering, finding Virgil now residing in the mountains rather than the streets of Reno.
And I have to say, though this is an overall more low-key effort, it’s a stylistic pivot that works surprisingly well. Sure, it’s tempered and less overall punchy than what came before it, but Virgil has exposed the darkest sides of his songwriting, characters and even himself before and can do it again if he wants. But there also comes a point when you have to stop romanticizing the downward spirals and trying to immortalize those gone way too soon and be happy that the performers who are still here are alive and doing well. Heck, the title track itself is derived from an old blues song from an old soul Virgil knows has become lost to time. But he’s has also settled into the sort of mold where he can be the sly, humorous shit-kicker to perform with a wink and a smile – and he certainly addresses that very legacy on “Didn’t Die Young (Ain’t Done Trying)” – but there is something refreshingly looser and more easygoing to his writing and performances here now, where he can still be the charismatic life of the party but can act as more of the self-aware observer – especially for his actual characters.
In a sense, then, this is probably the band’s most straightforward and defiantly country album to date, sporting a lot of tasteful rollick in its grooves and especially its copious amounts of fiddle. And the added live pickups and banter make this feel like it’s coming from some seedy barroom, as is always intended with this band. Though, the same nitpicks I’ve had with Shooter Jennings’ production before for this band also apply here, in that a lot of the smokier atmosphere and reverb employed tends to overtake the mix a bit too much at points and bury Virgil’s voice, which doesn’t help when you’re dealing with a gravelly but still textured and warm presence like his. And while this does feel like an overall more mature direction for the band sonically and lyrically, it does play things a bit too slow for its own good at points and drags in overall tempo and punch. It’s not always a bad thing – opener “Reeling Down” opens as something of an eerie warning to others to stay away from familiar (and timeless) rambling ways, and “Wednesday’s Women” does have the feel of old ghosts and flames just passing through but long forgotten. But you also have the lone dud in the awkward “My Woman’s Whiskey Kiss” that tries to aim for something darker and seedy at its core but never really manifests beyond outlaw clichés.
Even then, there’s a surprising amount of folk-like rollick to these tracks that comes unexpectedly but works to the band’s benefit, especially with a heavier storytelling focus. I love the shuffling minor groove echoing off the pedal steel and fiddle on “13 Corners” that stands as the soundtrack for a song about a dangerous highway that’s claimed many lives. And “Evacuation Song” just may be one of the band’s best in general, carried in a darker, more thunderous tone by those plucky acoustics, but intensified further by the ghostly swell and echoed backing vocals giving way to a track about the real-life wildfires in Paradise and the dread and suspense of being caught trying to evacuate that type of situation. It reminds me of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” in a lot of ways in tone and the environmental-minded writing, only caught in the throes of destruction rather than its aftermath.
And, in true Hellbound Glory fashion, you’ll also get those seedy, almost jaded barrom-ready tracks, like the cathartic kiss-off of “Can’t Wait to Never See You Again,” the groove-heavy “Word Gets Around,” the wistful and somewhat regretful “Wednesday’s Women,” and the big swinging closer of “Trouble in Mind” fitting for this band’s ethos. And even if it’s all understated and no longer coming from the place of a braggadocios hell-raiser, it’s still worth appreciating – especially with the heavier shift in fuller storytelling on tracks like “13 Corners” and “Evacuation Song” that I’d love to see Virgil continue to expand upon. True to the album title, this band may stem from a time when underground country bands caught no viral attention whatsoever, but if you want a veteran who still has a lot left to say and deserves that chance as much as your Zach Bryans and your Tyler Childers, Virgil – and the Hellbound Glory name in general – certainly stands as that.
- Favorite tracks: “Reeling Down,” “13 Corners,” “Can’t Wait to Never See You Again,” “Evacuation Song,” “Wednesday’s Women,” “Didn’t Die Young (Ain’t Done Trying)”
- Least favorite track: “My Woman’s Whiskey Kiss”