Soul and country music have always resided on the opposite sides of the same coin. Both deal with heartbreak, pain, joy, love, and just everyday life in very similar ways. Soul and R&B artists have successfully ventured into country for decades, from Ray Charles to Solomon Burke, while artists such as Tony Joe White, Bobbie Gentry, and O.C. Smith spent most of the late ’60s and early ’70s not so much blurring those lines as erasing them. So the idea that the king of twisted soul, Swamp Dogg (real name Jerry Williams Jr., until a combination of a late-’60s acid trip and exposure to Frank Zappa inspired his new persona and his now classic 1970 album Total Destruction to Your Mind), would record a country album isn’t far-fetched at all; in fact, it’s about time.
If there’s any doubt to Williams’ country bona fides, consider that his song (co-written with the great Gary U.S. Bonds) “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)” — which appears here in definitive form — was a number two hit for Johnny Paycheck on the country charts in 1972 and returned to the country top five in 1996 by Tracy Byrd. While those versions come across as bouncy, two-step-friendly, half-hearted requests, the version on Swamp Dogg’s Sorry You Couldn’t Make It will gut you. Finally, the music and performance match the pain and plea of the lyric. It’s “Jolene,” but for guys.
Sorry You Couldn’t Make It brings Williams back to his roots after his Kanye West-inspired left-turn into electro-dance-soul-hip-hop-something on 2018’s Love, Loss and Auto-Tune. That album was helmed by Ryan Olson of the electro-pop 10cc-inspired Gayngs with help from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Both return here, along with producer/programmer Moogstar, who’s worked with Williams since 2015’s The White Man Made Me Do It. Instead of burying the production in campy synths and auto-tune this time, however, they emphasize the authentic while coloring the sound with subtle synth touches (the drum machine that serves as the foundation on most tracks doesn’t at all distract or detract), allowing Williams to indulge in his love of country music, or his version of it, anyway.
Swamp Dogg’s version of country music is in the tradition of artists like Solomon Burke, who can twist every ounce of emotion out of a line to the point where you’re either holding your head, shaking it in disbelief, or raising your hand in affirmation of the message. Listening to Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, it’s hard to believe that Williams has spent most of the last 50 years as an offbeat, sometimes profane, purveyor of modern Southern soul. Yet the personality that fueled most of his career is still here; most evident on the two duets with John Prine.
“Memories” is prime Prine, and by the song’s end, in true Swamp Dogg fashion, a dreamy soundscape interrupts and distorts the music, illustrating the fading and altered perception memories convey. On the closing “Please Let Me Go Round Again,” Prine returns and joins Williams in a plea to a higher power for a little more time to right their wrongs. It’s at times hilarious, dark, poignant, and charming. A perfect summation of Swamp Dogg himself.