Review: Watermelon Slim- Ringers
Watermelon Slim is an American original. A quick glance at his biography would tell you as much. Already one of the best modern bluesmen around, on his past two albums- recorded in Nashville- he has shown an increasing interest in country music. And on his latest Ringers, Slim covers Conway Twitty and Moe Bandy in addition to a lot of great originals.
Things begin with the roadhouse honky tonk number “Good Old Boys Never Change”. Maybe, judging by the title, I’m being a little too obvious here but the song is a great outlaw country number in the style of Waylon in the mid-’70s. The lyrics celebrate Southern life and heritage in Slim’s signature weathered voice.
Next up is a cover of Conway Twitty’s “Tight Fittin’ Jeans”. This version is harder-edged and overall just more believable than the original. I’m a fan of Conway and very few could perform love songs as well as he could but his country soul-type voice could never pull off material like this and it fits into Slim’s overall persona and repertoire as if written for him.
On the next track, “Truck Drivin’ Buddy”, Watermelon Slim revisits his past as both a truck driver and a pure bluesman. He plays some excellent acoustic slide guitar here and the lyrics concern missing one’s significant other when on the road. “You wanna call her at every truck stop”, he says, “You wanna cry at every lonely jukebox.”
“He Went to Paris” is a cover of Jimmy Buffett of all people. I have not heard the original, but I am guessing that it wasn’t the Delta blues number heard here. It is not the best track here, but it is further proof that when it comes to music, it’s all connected somewhere.
“If There is Any Heaven” is a stripped-down blues rock track with excellent slide guitar (as there is throughout the album). The lyrics are at once pessimistic and uplifting. Here’s just one example: “If there’s any salvation, I hope there’s something left to save/Cause the weapons we are brandishing could blow us all to hell/And if there’s any person can turn this Earth from one mass grave/Why don’t he use his power to make a peaceful place to dwell?”. But later he tells us to “rejoice in the darkness” and that “peace will wear the crown”.
This is followed by “Please Take this Cup”, a somber country ballad with a harrowing tale of alcoholism (“I’ve lost jobs and a wife/Damn near lost my life/When the bottle was my only friend”). This is a real change of pace from most of the album and shows Slim’s ability to adapt to any style.
The next track, “No Way to Reach Nirvana” is perhaps the strangest track here and one of the oddest tributes to somebody I have heard. It begins with a late-’60s-styled blues rock guitar lick and then Slim’s voice singing: “I read my Rolling Stone today/Thought I’d see what they would say/Bout a pop star that blew his head off with a shotgun”. Later he says, “Media and the MTV didn’t care what he tried to be/Good or bad, they made millions off him somehow”. Later he warns the listener that suicide is “No way to reach Nirvana”. Despite being weird and despite the fact that a song about Kurt Cobain belongs here no more than Willie Nelson belongs on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, somehow it works. And, believe it or not, it’s even one of the albums best.
“The End of the Line” is a Creedence-like roots rocker about the death of the American railroad. Not one of the strongest here, but, then again, nothing here could really be called bad by any means.
He switches back to the country mode with the honky tonk ballad “Cowboys Are Common as Sin”. The song is set, like many other great country songs, is set in a bar. The rough-around-the-edges persona is once again at work here and it once again results in a throwback to the glory days of Waylon and Willie and also results in the album’s best track.
The next track “Soft Lights and Country Music” is a cover of Moe Bandy and he does a wonderful job of it, even inserting a little bit of Merle Haggard influence. Drinking songs like this are what mainstream country music used to be all about and Slim shows here that he is as capable of preserving that tradition as he is at preserving acoustic blues. And Paul Franlin’s steel guitar really makes the track.
“I Appreciate That” is a great blues song in the same vein lyrically as Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” but musically it is heavier and also display’s Slim’s talents on the harmonica.
“And So Our Song Ends” is a ballad about how he “left my wife for my lover” and this one contains a (very) slight R&B influence, particularly in the rhythm section and background singers. But at it’s heart is a classic-styled country weeper.
The country rock ballad “Living with a Lie” is also about cheating, but it is a much better track than it’s predecessor mainly due to its lyrics and arrangement. Maybe it will be a little too produced for some people, but personally I think it is one of the best on the album.
The final cut is “Letter to Stoney”, a honky tonk rocker that ends the album on a positive note after the previous two melancholy tracks. The song deals with his struggles to play on stage with one of his idols and how he “messed it up”. And he says, “If I can’t play with you, I’m always gonna be your fan.”
To sum it up, this album illustrates what all great American folk music is about. And if it occasionally falls short of being a masterpiece, that’s ok too, because none of it is bad, as I said before. At times the album could be classified as honky tonk, at other times blues, and occasionally even as Southern rock. But whatever label you want to put on it what you really have here is 14 tunes of great American music (from a Canadian blues label, no less) and that is the only thing that matters. Enjoy.