Imagine if the two hundred miles separating Nashville and Memphis hadn’t birthed two entirely separate musical cultures. As if the country songwriters of the former had more freely shopped their material among the blues and soul musicians of the latter. That’s the premise of the Bo-Keys third album, as they give songs by Harlan Howard, Curly Putnam, Hank Williams and Freddy Fender a spin down Beale Street and on a road trip to Muscle Shoals. Traveling beyond Nashville, the soul transformation roams West for Merle Haggard’s early album track “The Longer You Wait,” and East (albeit, via Nashville Skyline) for Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.”
The Bo-Keys aren’t the first to put a soulful spin on these song; Swamp Dogg’s “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)” started as a soul side before turning country, as did Curly Putnam’s “Set Me Free,” which had been given soulful treatments by Charlie Rich, Joe Tex, Van & Grace and Esther Phillips before Ferlin Husky took it to the Nashville mainstream. Even closer, Little Richard gave “I’m So Lonesome I Could Die” the full Stax treatment on 1971’s King of Rock and Roll. None of which takes away from the Bo-Keys creativity, but helps show that great songs can stand apart from the genre in which they were birthed. Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date,” for example, is equally compelling when shifted here from piano and strings to guitar and horns.
The opening “Heartaches By the Number” hangs on to its Ray Price beat, and though Johnny Tillotson added horns in an earlier cover, guest vocalist Don Bryant makes the song’s heartbreak darker. The band’s regular vocalist, Percy Wiggins, sings soulfully throughout, but really nails the spoken sections of “Set Me Free” with an edginess that reveals the song’s desperation. Eric Lewis’ pedal steel adds country notes to “The Longer You Wait,” but Wiggins’ vocal and the horn chart keep the song rooted in Memphis. The album’s two originals, “Learned My Lesson in Love” and “I Hope You Find What You’re Looking For,” fit musically and thematically with the covers, and fill out a great album full of jukebox heartbreak. [©2016 Hyperbolium]