An appreciation of Johnny Berry & The Outliers’ most recent album
If memory doesn’t over-serve, I ran onto Johnny Berry’s music during production of the final print edition of No Depression, too late to do much to…ahem…advance his career. That he lives across the state in Louisville is surprisingly irrelevant; I haven’t been in Kentucky long enough to build such allegiances. But he is a kind man who remembers that I wrote something nice about his previous album online, and keeps inviting me to gigs that are too far away or at just the wrong time (usually both), and so I’ve still not seen him.
The photograph on the credits side of the single page adorning Mr. Berry’s newest album, Bourbon Spearmint & Ice (the ingredients in the mint julep, should that not prove immediately apparent, though I seem to recall there’s supposed to be honey or sugar in the mix, as well) says rather too much about his climb up the ladder of success. Which is to say, best I can tell, he knows where the ladder is, and once (back when he was singing at the Opryland theme park which no longer exists) was close enough to see it. But here he is singing in a small, dark bar that would look to be long on character, strong on pours, and short on remuneration.
And yet, he continues, keeps writing his songs, plays when he can get time away from his family (I think that’s right) and a gig, and I hope the hobby his music career has presumably become at least pays for itself. Actually, I hope I’m simply wrong about all those guesses.
Berry has a deep, resonant voice that reminds me at various times of Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, or Junior Brown (especially on the delightful Dave Dudley-esque “Big Lovin'”). Which is to say that he’s a classicist, a tendency confirmed by “Who Shot Sam,” on which George Jones claims one-third of the songwriting credit, and the album’s sole cover. My guess is that had Berry found himself in Austin at the right time he’d have been embraced by the same folks who took to the Derailers and Wayne Hancock, that Don Walser would happily have sung with him, and that he’d be making a better living from his songs than ever he will in Louisville.
Which is how life goes, and I think, from the text of “These Days (Those Days Are Gone)” he knows and is at peace with that.
All in, though, the opening track, “All the Whiskey in Kentucky,” would make a fine song for somebody like Brad Paisley to rock up a bit, to play for laughs instead of heartache. That’s not a criticism of Berry’s songwriting, it’s a highly theoretical recommendation simply because I’m quite certain nobody in Brad Paisley’s camp reads what I write here, nor cares two shakes of a rat’s tail for what songs I think he should cover. (Or one of the Texas party singers.)
It is not quite my point that I think Johnny Berry should be a big star, or even a mid-sized burnout in the firmament. It’s my point that he’s good, plenty good enough. That, like Dallas Wayne, say, he should have an audience. That every once in a while he hits a song or a line so far out of the park that your ears prick up and wonder why his name’s not better known. And then you listen to “Weekend Willie and Jukebox Charlie” and know where he spends his time, where he works. The audience country music wished to shed in the early 1990s, the audience of the forgotten Americans who work with their hands and dance with their hearts and love with a bottle in their hand. I stereotype, typing quickly, and apologize for that.
But Mr. Berry’s music obliges no apology. This is solid, classical country music, a brief nine songs (just like an old LP) with pathos and humor and a pretty solid vocalist (and some nice keyboard work spliced in, though Floyd Cramer didn’t use what sounds like an electric keyboard). And one of these days I’ll get to see him play. It’s possible that I’ll drink too much that night, and it’s also possible that those days are well behind me.