The opening song on Brian Whelan’s latest, Sugarland (released March 25 on Line in the Sound Records), begins innocently enough. It’s a fairly typical rock and roll song start-up: there is the power chord from the rev-up of an electric guitar, with that familiar distorted crunch. Then comes the syncopation of a kick drum and snare. It feels like momentum is building. Then, there is a third instrument — a seemingly out-of-place banjo being tuned. The tuning of a banjo is an inside joke in itself. But then, the player begins and you can almost feel the sparks. I don’t think Elvis did it this way.
With his second solo album, former Dwight Yoakam sideman Brian Whelan brings something new to today’s roots music scene. He plays the kind of music that made Chuck Berry stand up and duck walk, that made Buddy Holly turn around and hiccup with delight. He has caught the pulse of rock and roll celebration on Sugarland — it’s fresh and carries the kind of innocence that propelled Holly into the spotlight in the late 1950s.
From the album’s first note to its final track, the signal is clear: this is not the safe country-textured Americana music we’re used to hearing. Whelan arrives reminding us how, 20 years ago, a new genre was identified with a call to return American music to its roots, to the raw nerve and pulse of great music.
On the opening track “Americana,” as the electric guitar wails and the fiddle solo burns, Whelan calls out the more commercially based Americana artists who have grown comfortable in their conformity, making music that has become safe.
Hey ho kid I’m looking at you
I’ll never get over what you put me through
You got me calling out for your mama
She said there’s nothing wrong with Americana
The song sets the pace for a collection of music that builds off of the power-pop-with-a-country-edge strength of Whelan’s debut release, The Decider.
But, Whelan brings to Sugarland an inspired, energetic momentum and unity of purpose that carries the purity of rock and roll energy, fusing it with high-powered country-rock. He’s shows us the lessons he learned from years of playing with Yoakam. “Americana” continues with lyrics like:
You industry kids with your college wits
You’re a pretty nice guy but you sound like shit
You could change it if you really wanna
There is nothing wrong with Americana
Sugarland does for rock-based Americana what Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton are doing today for classic-style country music. The opening song sets the bar high for what follows, but Whelan delivers throughout with a consistent collection of Buddy Holly/Gene Vincent-inspired original songs that return us to the original down-to-the-bone energy with a modern twist. This is not simply a recreation of rockabilly. It is a modern reboot.
Whelan has paid his country and rock dues over the last decade through the Los Angeles Americana-roots scene. After graduating from USC with a music degree, he began haunting little shadowy places like the beautifully funky, tiny Cinema Bar on L.A.’s west side. He became known as ‘The Kid,’ a guitar slinger for artists like Tony Gilkyson and Mike Stinson. With a dynamic and distinct lead guitar sound, it didn’t take long for him to gain the notice of L.A.-based country star Dwight Yoakam.
During his days with Yoakam, who gained his reputation mostly outside of the view of mainstream country, Whelan was taught to be “loud and proud.” Although he was already a multi-instrumentalist when he joined Yoakam’s band, the first tour he joined was winding down. It left him with time on his hand. He learned to play pedal steel guitar. He absorbed the album Dwight Sings Buck and learned the steel parts note for note.
Then there came a time when Whelan heard the call to move forward with a solo career. Leaving Yoakam’s band last year was a step in the right direction. After solid notices for 2014’s The Decider, Whelan took to the road, breaking through and building a following throughout Texas and Louisiana.
Sugarland finds him on confident fire with the kind of inspiration that once fueled Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran. His songwriting and vocal skills bring a contemporary edge that engages and reminds us of how pure and good rock and roll can be when it’s not following a map dictated by commercial concerns.
The album’s title track confirms Whelan’s rock credentials. “The Only Thing” and “Go Dancing” keep the dance-floor energy going, while “#1 Fan” brings a country-rock vibe with an outstanding Chuck Berry-style lead guitar.
But, it’s “Suckerpunch” and “Stand in Your Light” that add dimension and depth to this collection. These two songs make this album stand apart from The Decider and also from many pop-rock songs in the mainstream today. “Suckerpunch” speaks to the desolate feelings of lost love. With an echo of early Neil Young, Whelan sets the scene of despair and loss with imagery that cuts to the core. This is no ordinary love song.
“Stand in Your Light” is another song of love on the losing end. The singer describes a night of alienation and the phrase “standing in your light” takes a different turn from most love songs. The tune yearns in its portrayal of gradual self-destruction.
Sugarland is one of the best new releases of the year in Americana music — and mainstream rock. Where Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are garnering attention for bringing country back to its roots, Whelan deserves acclaim for working from the roots of rock and roll. His rock-flavored songcraft stands on its own, demonstrating one of the finest singer-songwriters out today. Sugarland is living proof.