I can understand the strategy of much of today’s country artists as they keep going to the well to pull out songs about the same basic lyric subjects, singing in the same commercial drivel, cookie-cutter methods. Hell, it pays the mortgage, buys another Mercedes Benz (even though they sing about their rusted pickup truck with the flat tire and it only goes in reverse). Enough of that tired, but true tale.
Take a deep breath – salvation is within reach and maybe it will reach beyond its basic esoteric audience: If you enjoy, and can appreciate country, honky-tonk music with hard floor dancing with scuffed boots on a Friday night, corn liquor, hand-rolled cigars with barbeque pork and beans on tin plates — allow me to introduce you to the eclectic Western Centuries’ new album “Weight of the World.”
Now for some, I’ll have to draw some comparisons with other bands and artists so the territory these gentlemen trek through to get their tuneful messages across will be more clearly defined. You know the crowd –the straw in the mouth audience that just wants to feel some straight beat shimmy through their flesh, swing Betty across the floor, chug a pint of moonshine and snag some chaw. Doesn’t sound like I’m addressing anyone in New York City does it? But, New York has its urban cowboys too so they might have a hankerin’ for these good ole boys. These guys are the real deal. Let’s start there.
They are not the Allman Brothers. No. They don’t pretend to be The Charlie Daniels Band. Nope. They are closer in tradition to a band that has (present tense) many albums, are considered a classic country band and have been performing since 1968.
Their brethren would then be: The Goose Creek Symphony. This was a tight ensemble that performed exceptionally virtually every time they stepped in front of an audience. To understand their history and their influence you will have to do a little research of your own. But, to not have heard their medley of “Saturday Night at the Grange/ Li’l Liza Jane/ Everybody Wants To Boogie/ Black Jack Davy/ Plans of the Lord” (Reprise) from “Do Your Thing But Don’t Touch Mine,” or the energetic “Charlie’s Tune” from 1970 — is to deny your ears some sweet musical candy. (Available on YouTube).
I’ve been listening to Goose Creek since the early 1970’s and Western Cultures is the closest group of musicians I have ever heard master the traditional intensity and musical radiation of the Goose Creek performances. There are other bands that come to mind: Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Seatrain, Pure Prairie League, and some other offshoots of Jerry Garcia. But, Western Cultures has this arrangement style to their songs that has that Goose Creek aggressiveness, intensity and lead vocalist Cahalen Morrison – while not sounding exactly like Goose Creek’s Charlie Gearheart – does have that unique vocal approach that Gearheart possesses. The vocal sounds like many before him and no one at all. This is magic. This is like discovering a new motherlode.
The opening track is the title track – “Weight of the World,” and it resonates immediately in the ear. Teasing notes from Rusty Blake’s pedal steel drive the tune as Cahalen Morrison sings. Unlike many in country music Morrison has a gift for pronunciation of individual words, inflection on certain words used as wisely as Frank Sinatra and Morrison has phrasing that is exceptional. The band is as tight as cleavage in a push-up bra two sizes too small.
The way the band adds and subtracts instruments in this song to keep it moving along at a brisk pace — is interesting, as well as, stirring. The story that unravels in this song is clearly first class. I don’t care what country radio plays or thinks is popular this is corn liquor 110 proof and clear as water. Radio has a tendency to play house whiskey. When Taylor Swift’s hits become nostalgia – Western Centuries’ songs — such as this one — will be sought out as collectibles. I love the way Morrison holds his notes on certain words with authority and he colorizes the lyrics with yelps that are exciting. This is a good singer; an inventive singer and he doesn’t just sing words he tailors them to his expressive voice.
“Double or Nothing,” follows with a steady beat and fiddles. Drummer Ethan Lawton takes lead vocals on this song and sounds more like a member of the Del Lords (“Dream Come True”). This song has a great groove and Lawton has an attractive voice. Smokey, sincere and he sounds like an old time singer from the early 60’s by the name of Johnny Fox who (on YouTube) has a cover of the classic “Mountain Dew – The New R&B Version” on the Newtime label. Foxx has that same energetic, country-soul, honky-tonk fire in his tonal performance that Ethan displays. This would be a great song for Western Centuries to cover, but they would have to study that Johnny Fox intonation. He had it down perfectly. Unfortunately, Fox was never fully developed by his record company and became a novelty act until he disappeared.
“Knockin’ Em Down” possesses traditional fiddle and even though Jim Miller’s vocals are more corn-pone oriented — he does it well. He hits great notes, his voice is clear and the song itself is not novelty or silly. It’s simplistic, back-porch sincere and his voice change from Cahalen and Ethan is balanced. The band displays some fine diversified vocalizing. Rosie Newton provides the fiddle work, and Rusty Blake plays pedal steel. So far, the arrangements for each of the first three songs are top shelf. These men, at least, through their vocalizing, know how to relate a story through their lyrics. This song would be a great one for Doug Gray of the Marshall Tucker Band – not because Jim doesn’t do it good enough – he just does it so good that I “hear” a great band like Marshall Tucker running through his imaginative version. It’s all a job well done.
Cahalen Morrison returns on lead vocals for “What Will They Say About Us Now?” and the tune has some fine gritty Jim Miller lead guitar. The songs are also mixed excellently. My speakers have separation that create an ambience that the band is right here in the room with me and it’s absolutely wonderful. This is probably the most commercial of all the songs. If this doesn’t find a place on country radio there is something wrong with that industry. There’s probably somethung wrong with it anyway….
More Morrison on “Philosophers and Fools,” continues with the retro-sounding pedal steel of Rusty Blake. Rosie Newton’s fiddle returns and Dan Lowinger’s bass is a wall of deep notes. Ethan lays down some nice drum licks. It may sound older than today’s country music, but this is a style that really doesn’t run out of gas. There’s a slickness to the overall presentation, there is also traction in how the song takes to the road to your ears. The lyrics are actually quite creative too for a country song: “Oh, seamless love is the construct of philosophers and fools….” Wow…that was nice. I wonder how George Jones would have navigated words like that in his day?
As the PR outlines – honky-tonks are not usually the places where you would think bold experimentation would be welcomed. But, the way Western Centuries has presented some of their experiments I don’t think most people in the audience would even notice or care. The songs are solid. They are not using unorthodox instruments, or cross-breeding instruments from other types of music into their repertoire. What they are doing is putting on a fresh pair of jeans where others continue to wear the old ones. Jeans are jeans. But their clothes are shimmer. The fact that their songwriting is somewhat diverse is refreshing. Three distinct songwriters with three distinct singers — not afraid to shake the bottle a little and see what spews out.
“In My Cups,” has a striding style reminiscent of The Mavericks, Los Lobos and the duo Lowen and Navarro. The tune elevates a listener – the combined efforts of the fiddle and pedal steel are glorious. But, I must say, you must be a lover of old style country music to fully enjoy this jaunt, or daring enough to listen patiently for how its ore will be chipped away from the stone. I don’t think you’re going to see too many rap artists, or R&B singers embracing this music — though I know some secretly in the darkness of their bedrooms huddle away at times to listen to this for clues to its rich inspiration and for historical purposes. For their ears – Johnny Cash’s material may be more acceptable – but, only the stuff he did that was dark. My enjoyment comes from the stylistic vocalizing of each performer, the musical intertwining of instruments. This is not Elvis, Willie Nelson or George Jones. It has that progressive alt-country feel tacked to heavy dose of traditional old time arrangements. It works at times better than others but, there is no faltering. Each track has its worth. “Hallucinations,” is another experiment in word play and clever modern sensibility lyrics.
“The Long Game,” has great fiddle work and the pedal steel glues it all together. The Jim Miller vocals are fiery and Cahalen’s harmony vocals are spot on. More of this teaming would be great because their vocals work together very well. Cahalen Morrison returns to lead vocals with “The Old You,” and his voice is sincerely, deeply rooted in this music. It has a sound like it comes from another era. On this song he borders on Jimmie Dale Gilmore territory.
Oh boy, the final track is the fiddle-driven “Rock Salt,” sung by Jim Miller — the only country-rocker on the collection. This is like a Levon Helm (and The Band) lost track. Even Ethan is playing drums in a sharp, snare snap Levon Helm fashion, but it’s Jim Miller’s excellent vocal that reminds me of our beloved Levon. Now, Jim is NOT emulating or copying Levon. It’s obvious he is just singing in one of his finest voices. The song has that Levon Helm richness that is brought out by the song itself – the music and lyrics. This a great track. Excellent lyrics and the entire production on a whole is fiery and good…Great send off.
The collection of 12-songs was produced by Bill Reynolds with Western Centuries & recorded in Nashville. The CD is a beautifully packaged eight panel fold out with all the lyrics enclosed. The design is also vintage — with all the songs listed on the front panel. Very rural. Very good. Dejah Leger designed the cover art – excellent.
Music Samples: http://www.westerncenturies.com/music/
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 reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / August 2016