The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox – #4 (2023): (Catie Offerman, Billy Strings feat. Willie Nelson, Turnpike Troubadours, Molly Tuttle)

Given that I contribute to Country Universe’s single review roundup – which has now become a more consistent feature of the site – this already infrequent feature may become even more scarce around here. It helps that we’ve got some heavy-hitters to discuss here today, and that one of these reviews is actually timely for once. Onward!

Catie Offerman, “I Just Killed a Man” (written by Ryan Beaver, Benjy Davis, Catie Offerman, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Joe Clemmons)

Catie Offerman came on my radar last year with the great, early Kacey Musgraves-inspired “Happyland Trailer Park,” and it’s a shame she hasn’t received greater recognition quite yet. Granted, I’ll never understand why artists and their teams decide to go with the release strategy that throws a bunch of standalone singles to the wall without a full-length project (or even an EP) to better anchor them; in 2023 it’s just contributing to an already cluttered field.

So, with “I Just Killed a Man” acting as her fifth single release with nothing more in sight quite yet, it’s still slightly annoying, but this is another winner. A great flip of the script from her previous work, too, given that this is anchored in something slightly darker off the soft brushes of acoustics and pedal steel playing uneasily off the slight waltz cadence. Fitting for the title, though maybe not in the way one would expect given this genre’s history of murder ballads. This is anchored more in heartache and regret, where her “killing a man” is really her leaving him behind and feeling a sense of remorse over how she left it, even if it had to happen. Even still, the strong word choice alone does add greater stakes to the situation in things not quite playing out the way she thought they might, and it’s only furthered by Offerman herself. She’s a strong vocalist on a technical level, but also one who can sell the tempered weight and regret of having to play the villain here. Strong stuff once again – I just hope it leads to something more. Boom.

Billy Strings feat. Willie Nelson, “California Sober” (written by Aaron Allen, Jon Weisberger, and William Apostol)

… I mean, it’s a song by Billy Strings and Willie Nelson called “California Sober.” I don’t really need to explain this one too much in depth, right?

Probably not, but it is worth mentioning that this blends Strings’ natural bluegrass bent with Nelson’s dusty, ’70s-inspired rollick incredibly effectively. Really, with the fast-picked banjo and occasional blasts of fiddle and harmonica, this sounds like a close cousin to “On the Road Again” (or rather, the continuation of it as the actual road trip in question). Well, somewhat. It is, after all, a song actually about setting aside rowdy ways in favor of finding clarity as one grows older, except for cannabis, that is … until that last verse comes around where they dive back in and you know they were both just screwing with us all along. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a collaboration between these two, but if my biggest knock is just that it’s a bit conventional, I can’t complain. Not when it sounds this good. Boom.

Turnpike Troubadours, “Mean Old Sun” (written by Evan Felker)

We’ve emerged from the darkness. And even despite a very messy album rollout thus far that somehow got even further sidetracked since the band’s official return over a year ago, this feels like a true event and was always going to anyway – the first piece of new music from the Turnpike Troubadours in over six years. “Mean Old Sun” is the first step toward A Cat in the Rain on August 25, so as far what’s changed along the way … well, quite a lot and also very little. As while there is a very healthy balance between Hank Early’s banjo, Ryan Engleman’s sizzling electric axes, and Kyle Nix’s fiddle play anchored in the same rough texture you expect from this band, having Shooter Jennings as a producer to accentuate more atmospheric touches is an excellent fit, too.

After all, the extended lead introduction to the song is a fitting symbol for their return, and possibly for the content. And here’s the tricky part, because while one could infer a lot between the lines over Evan Felker’s own personal struggles through the years in certain lines about seperation and heading elsewhere, it’s more about hardbitten perseverance through the worst of it all. The verses are short but anchored more in symbolism and hazy snapshots, as well as in mood off its generally calloused feel. Basically, if you know the story, you know not to read much further into it than that. If you don’t, you probably don’t want to know, because either way he’s been to hell and back again and has emerged with scars … but also clarity. And as far as what else that entails, well, we’ll just have to see. But even if there was always going to be a lot of excitement surrounding this band’s return regardless of the actual quality, they came out swinging like they never left. Boom.

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, “El Dorado” (written by Ketch Secor and Molly Tuttle)

Coming off last year’s excellent Crooked Tree with a Grammy award to match it, I’m thrilled to see Molly Tuttle ride the momentum and come back strong so soon. I’m also thrilled to see her lean into the dark, frenetic storytelling that characterized so much of what I loved about tracks like “Dooley’s Farm” and “Castilleja” from that album with “El Dorado” ahead of City of Gold.

If anything, this just sounds like an even greater refinement overall. It’s sharper in its instrumentation and songwriting overall, and touches on bluegrass tradition by looking toward the past for inspiration. In this case, that means the California Gold Rush, where even if Tuttle’s typically playful writing does add a theatrical quality to the unfortunate characters sketched here set to lose it all, there is sense of urgency in the faster-picking and overall dramatic stakes. Some came for greed and some came for survival, but no one needed the trouble that came with it. Still, so long as Tuttle and her Golden Highway band keep refining their bluegrass palette like this, everyone’s a winner. Boom.

3 thoughts on “The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox – #4 (2023): (Catie Offerman, Billy Strings feat. Willie Nelson, Turnpike Troubadours, Molly Tuttle)

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