John Lilly has been lauded on Flyinshoes Review many times because in his own low-key, unassuming way he has seemed to be the truest modern embodiment of the music of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. Over several albums he has developed a knack of writing songs that sound half a century old, and has performed them with an impeccable guitar style and a relaxed, homely vocal style. For all his success in winning songwriting competitions and in winning over audiences with the sheer quality of his work, I never really expected to hear him in any other context than as a solo performer. To hear him front an all-star band, as he does on this new album, is a revelation.
Cold Comforthas sprung from his Texas connections; John himself is from West Virginia and is very much identified with the musical culture of that state. However, friends and connections in the Texan music scene led to this album being recorded in Floresville, Texas. With Tommy Detamore at the controls and playing steel guitar, the roll call of supporting players is something to behold: Bill Kirchen and Sonny Landreth on guitars, Bobby Flores and Tim O’Brien on fiddle, Floyd Domino on piano, Ric Ramirez on bass…all in all it’s a big step from one guy and one mic stand. There’s also supporting vocals from Brennen Leigh; for all John Lilly’s many talents he’s not really a natural front man for a full band (his voice being essentially built for understatement and intimate performance), so I reckon it’s a good move to give him a little support on that front whilst keeping his distinctive style.
The songwriting is as wonderful as ever; just one song, Tore Up From The Floor Up is familiar from a previous incarnation. All the new material seems to have moved on in time a little. There are still some touches of Hank, especially on Done Done It which features some great retro guitar and piano from Bill Kirchen and Floyd Domino. On other songs, though, we seem to be moving into the 1960s and some classic country of that era. Both the title song and the one that follows it, I Thought You’d Never Call (and there are others) are loving recreations of the great country heartbreakers. It’s always been true with John Lilly’s songs that you feel you already know them from somewhere, and these songs could be lifted from a George Jones album. On first hearing my ear was caught by all these fantastic players adding some beautiful embellishments to John Lilly’s songs but on closer acquaintance it’s the quieter arrangements where the charm of John’s songwriting has room to shine through that really stick with me. As Is, for instance, the story of a first car, bought “As Is” from a second-hand dealer, is just a great example of his style – straightforward, homely and affectionate, without getting too sentimental.
If the launch concert with the full band makes it to youtube (and why wouldn’t it) then I expect Done Done It should be really worth searching out because this is a great ensemble piece - Hank Williams done in the style of the Texas Playboys with ample room for all the instrumentalists to chuck in their party pieces and for John to close the song on a cheerful yodel. The other stand out track is Tore Up From The Floor Up, the synchopated rhythm sounding as cool as could be whilst John Lilly and Bill Kirchen trade lead lines on their guitars with some gorgeously fluid playing. Somehow I don’t see this album setting John Lilly off on a tour of huge venues with six guys on stage; I think it will remain true that his work is best appreciated in an intimate setting. However, it’s a lovely album and if it helps make this very fine writer better known, then that’s all to the good.