I am a writer and listener of music that is not a big fan of pop-country. Maybe not so much for what it is but for what country radio tries to pass off as the genuine item. Pop music is not country music in the truest sense of the word.
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Jessi Colter, Gene Watson, Merle Haggard – I would consider country…and outlaw country. Then there are the country-folk artists like Gram Parsons, John Haitt, Lyle Lovett, John Stewart, Nanci Griffith and Buddy Miller types. The raw country hat and high boot singers that are close to the earth and their trucks: George Strait, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McIntire, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, Roger Miller, Hank Williams Jr., and the like. And of course, the classic country: Jim Reeves, Hank Williams, Charlie Pride, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, George Jones — those brilliant country and western vocalists. The “western” seems to have dissipated over the decades.
Then there are singers that tread a more homegrown, long road of storytelling style that is refreshing and solid: John Prine, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt and guys like Chuck McDermott (who performed as Chuck McDernott and Wheatstraw back to 1977).
From the opening track of Chuck’s new album “Gin & Rosewater,” – you know there’s some grit and vinegar in this guy’s showcase. You know he’s the real deal as well.
With the opening lines of “Belvedere.”
“All the blood behind the dam, all the feeling in my hands, all the light your eyes can stand…” Words like that — it’s a given — that Chuck has already chosen a subject for his country song that not many artists even explore.
I also liked Marco Giovino’s unorthodox sound on his drums on this particular song and the powerful Kevin Barry pedal steel with the Chuck McDermott acoustic guitar presence — classy. His roots evidently go deep into this music and I believed this was just a tease of what was to come.
The lyrics are not eyebrow raising like Townes Van Zandt or John Haitt. Those clever turns of phrases and colorful highbrow sentences. But the words Chuck uses are well-chosen hooks in each song. “A Thousand Cuts,” has McDermott repeating the words “I hurt…” quite a bit but that’s the sweet hook in this driving tune that has that strange way of staying in your ears long after it’s been played.
“She sang every morning at mass, with the men from St. Lucy…her voice rang as clear as the rain…and it mimicked her beauty.” Nice.
This is one of the best tracks on this collection. It reminded me of John Prine with all of his 16 cylinders crafted lyrics. Chuck sings with a sparkling sincere voice and this one has some clever glorious lyrics (that from a person who has written lyrics in the past. This is to admired).
The lyrical story unfolds like a little Tennessee Williams play, with John Steinbeck, or Faulkner images. “The Girl from St. Lucy,” unwinds with the same absorbing power as any slow Willie Nelson tune. Chuck’s voice is deep and resonant like Buddy Miller, and with a touch of Jimmie Dale Gilmore for flavor, it’s quite a winner.
Deni Hlavinka provides the Emmylou Harris-like delicate and heavenly backing vocal and Joe “Sonny” Barbato presses the accordion buttons with serenity in each touch. I can’t express how beautiful this composition is. It needs to be heard by anyone who has a heart, enjoys reminiscing and loves good memories. This song is as good as anything written by the legendary country songwriters and every musician on this track played meticulously.
A nice trek into the territory of the wonderful late John Stewart (“Gold”) who wrote the next song — “Irresistible Targets.” This could be sung as recorded by Chuck, with tight-fisted power or it could rock out even harder. This is a song that is performed with poignancy, muscle, and melody. Kevin Barry provides more shades of lap steel, and everyone that participates is dynamic. Mark Erelli inserts high strung guitar and it soars. This is another keeper.
Chuck actually performed with John Stewart and his band in the 80’s and during that time John had a great album out called “Bombs Away Dream Babies,” (1979). Featured on this Stewart LP were Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks who joined in on some tracks. In John’s earlier days he was also a member of The Kingston Trio, and he wrote the classic Monkees’ song “Daydream Believer.” So, Chuck McDermott – well, he’s been in good company over the years and continues to do so. If John Stewart is on your musical resume — you have credibility.
A shift in gears and the title track begins with crystalline acoustics. “Gin & Rosewater,” — a pleasant upbeat song that features a mandola (Duke Levine) and Joe “Sonny” Barbato’s accordion with Kevin Barry’s pedal steel steering the melody. This track is a little more steeped in classic traditional Americana. The entire production has an attractive tone and again, Chuck writes like the song is meant to be a little short story. Nothing in his material is standard, cliched or typical of any country genre. It tells stories, he ties them up in a countrified-folky manner much the same as John Stewart — and the tales unwind in your ears to be savored.
So far what I’m finding is a good mix of album tunes that don’t resemble each other. Chuck McDermott obviously has a handle on the message he wants to convey and maintains a somewhat strict, yet ambitious, flexibility on his showcase.
“Hold Back the Water,” is a bit rockier with gospel leanings. Nice intricate acoustic guitar work, special effects on a telephone call, good backing vocals by Deni and Jeff Ramsey. Richard Gates’ bass is thunderous along with Marco’s drums. Then, just as the phone call ends its either Kevin Barry or Duke Levine whose lead guitar comes along like a classic Procol Harum solo. Very effective and classy. The tune overall is a production – it’s weaved dramatically but not bombastically. A true show stopper.
This unit is so tight you couldn’t slip a butter knife between them. Chuck’s voice is a little more ragged on “Everything” but here, Chuck dazzles with a style similar to Jon Dee Graham and that light Barbato accordion adds a nice touch of stability. Kevin’s guitar is tuned to an old-fashioned style and lays down some pleasant sounding notes. It almost sounds like an American country song that could have been written by a European musician. There’s a flare of Italian and French music that runs through its veins and if you know anything about Euro-music it’s all about reflective, savoring melodies. Well, it may have been written by Chuck – but those traits are there. Well done.
Chuck’s pen scratches a little into the margins of Tom Waits / Chuck E. Weiss territory with “Downtown Bus,” and it has an effective, absorbing lyric with Jack Kerouac overtones. Guitar and drums are jazzier than usual and the melody is anchored in a more dirtier blues soil. But…the entire presentation is fluid, and its instincts are to rock with a country beat. This is such a good showcase for Chuck McDermott. It seems he can do it all – balanced, diversified and assured with a reliable crew of musicians.
Ah…a classic cover comes to the surface in Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” I always enjoy listening to a good artist tackle a classic song in amongst their originals. But Chuck is experienced so I’m not expecting anything sappy and half-assed. Being able to cover another style song or another great artist’s hit — to interpret it — lends credence and certainty that the musician, the singer is not a fluke. Elvis Presley didn’t write his own songs but boy could he take someone else’s song and make it his own. How many artists can really do that effectively? Today? Not many. There are a few that had to test themselves each time with material from other sources as Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Presley.
Here, Chuck doesn’t attempt to do Cash at all. This is totally in a Chuck McDermott style with the potent soaring guitar (Lyle Brewer), the jungle-like drums, the mid-paced vocalizing and the necessary drama. Weighed in perfectly by McDermott. Chuck passes the cover test with ease. Many great singer-songwriters can sing their own tunes with brilliance (The Beatles) but when it comes to singing a cover song they seem to run out of steam on the interpretation (The Beatles) for example.
In the tradition of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” – Chuck rambles off a dozen scenarios lyrically in “Wheels on the Road.” While this style has been done effectively before this is quite a sincere addition to the genre. What did I actually like about this? All serious musicians should add one tune to their record or repertoire to show they have a sense of humor. McDermott succeeds here — and it comes with experience.
Another classic cover follows and Chuck McDermott starts this classic blues tune with his acoustic guitar. Very different from the classic Eric Burdon and the Animals or Nina Simone versions of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Yet, while the lead guitar is bluesy and effective and Chuck’s vocal is delicate, powerful and lends yet another take on this sensitive tune here, Chuck is not as angry as Burdon and Simone. Instead, he pleads about not being misunderstood and it shimmers. Just a country-folk singer? I don’t think so.
A nice funky intro starts the final track “People Are Weak,” and Chuck – anchored by a soulful funky drum beat, a nice bottom bass, and a Steve Cropper type lead guitar courtesy of special guest guitarist Stephen Stills adds to the album’s diverse repertoire.
All humorously stung by some punctuated accordion (usually not used on a funky tune). Does it work? Yes, it does and CM’s voice works as well and that’s the most important thing. The entire production gets feet moving and hands clapping. The band lays down a thick smoke of convincing rhythmic layers. As a close-out for an album of 14 songs that add up to a very generous 1-hour of music, I found this ambitious, competent and it just may move your grouchy mood into a happier place.
Chuck McDermott’s “Gin & Rosewater,” was produced by Lorne Entress and recorded primarily in Massachusetts and some in Connecticut. The CD art was designed by Anne Lyon Studio & Cole Thompson Design. The CD photography was by Kelly Davidson. The CD is a standard one with all color photos of Chuck and a nice stitched lyric book with musician credits.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / May 2017