Patron saints of the fiddle.
The ebb and flow of trends and success in country music aren’t what one would call natural. Especially these days. No cycle of spontaneous order or an unintentional order out of chaos really exist in this money-grabbing industry. The deliberate machinations of country music are very intentional — from Nashville to Austin. Today each hit seems to have been born out of some great marketing strategy. And, yes, that is now starting to include you, Texas.
A sub-genre might start off well-intentioned but when its great sounding tunes begin to creep up the charts and duplicitous sureties come out from under the mob of rocks that have suddenly appeared, all bets are off. The great corporate music house usually wins every hand from that moment on. Usually, but not always. Every now and then, a band of rebels will come along and storm the embassy of slick-talking subterfuge and lip service; then breach the walls of convention and mindless austerity with guitars and fiddles aloft. One of those bands is making its charge today. In Texas. In Fort Worth. Saints Eleven.
Feb. 11 marks the release date of SE’s sophomore effort, I Told You. The album cannot truly be defined as country — it would be, if it was unleashed during the open-ended musical parameters of the ’70s, but not in 2015. Yet, this soulful slice of honky tonk-fiddlin’-cum-outlaw has its own signature that resists the temptation to be defined by the Texas Country music or Red Dirt sound. And though guitarist and vocalist Jeff Grossman considers the band part of the Red Dirt music scene, their music has perhaps spawned a new unidentified country sub-genre without contrivance. Nevertheless, Saints Eleven ably and sanguinely stands apart from the so-called underground of Central Texas and the tired or fly-by-night artists (take your pick) saturating Music City.
At first glance, what separates them from the rest is their liberal use of the fiddle. It is basically a front and center instrument in the SE arsenal and, if you listen to their debut, I’ll Be Fine, it is apparent that the presence of the fiddle on that record was foreshadowing the sound that was created on I Told You. Fiddle player Michael Poole deftly rubs off some manic riffs that help push the album forward as SE has traded keys and second guitar for this old-time implement with its roots in the lyra of the 10th Century Byzantine Empire. On the hook-friendly “Down the Road,” you think you’re in for a brief “Gary Rossington” guitar solo, but then Poole drops a mighty vibrato fiddle movement into your ears. Fiddle solos abound.
Secondly, it is Grossman’s singing. His nasally and elongated, accented syllables cannot be compared. The best example — and by a stretch — would be Phil Lee and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Bingham; but their scratchy vocals are still somewhat distant. Grossman’s vocal is select unto itself.
“They always say that I have a different-sounding voice,” he says. “They never say if it’s good or bad, they just say it’s different, so I think it’s a compliment.”
And of course Grossman’s guitar gets a few plugs as well, such as the ZZ Top vibe of “I Don’t” or the blistering Albert Collinsesque solo on the funky “A Little Time With You” (did I hear a bass popping harmonic somewhere in there?), plus a little slide on “Hungover.” The Dobro is another player in their lineup and Grossman paints pictures and writes scenes with his awesome style of play. “Old Friend” is a highlight of I Told You because of it. (Check out the Texas Country Music chart-lingering “Man In the Water” on I’ll Be Fine… the juxtaposition of the Dobro with the lyrics is adroit musical craftsmanship).
Lyrically, the songs primarily traverse the familiar paths of heartbreak and relationship despair, but three stand-out tracks worthy of note are “Stone Free,” which could be described as “Man In The Water II” (lyrics-wise); “Old Friend,” with its economy of deep lyrics and from a wordsmith standpoint, remind one of “That’s Entertainment” by the late ’70s/early ’80s British punk-mod band, The Jam; and the complex simplicity of George Jones’ iconic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” “Hungover” completes this triumvirate and testifies to the duplicity of alcohol and concludes that it is a game-ender:
Man, this kind of life is going to drag me down,
I use to think this stuff was going to make me strong,
But if I had nine lives,
(Hey) I just about went through them all
The album, recorded by the highly regarded Bart Rose at Fort Worth Sound, and driven by the sightly strong rhythm section of Jeff Mosley (bass), and Chris Bradley (drums), possesses a greater sonic element than its predecessor, which makes for a much more engaging listening experience. It also includes a cover of the ’70s crossover hit “Delta Dawn,” made popular by Tanya Tucker and Helen Reddy. An interesting choice, but may be the weak link in this chain of tunes. Perhaps a workout of Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride” would have worked well here, and of course it has Texas roots — but there are a bevy of less-deserving choices out there in coverland. If it was someone’s mother’s favorite song, all apologies.
I Told You is a “funk” full of soul peppered with Southern rock, country, Delta blues, and fragments of Boz Scaggs and the early Steve Miller Band. A shaking, stomping, jumping soundtrack set to a melancholy narrative. A strong second run by this Fort Worth quartet. And, while there are many derivative artistic nods on the album, Saints Eleven’s acute arrangements, Grossman’s unique vocals and poetic Dobro, and the planned incursion of the fiddle ensure that this CD is exclusively Saints Eleven.
No thank you, Nashville.