Let me riff on the old Wolf Brand Chili ad from decades ago: Neighbor, how long has it been since you read a big, steaming Terrell’s Tune-Up column entirely devoted to country music?
Well, that’s too long! So here is a look at three fine hillbilly albums I’ve been listening to lately.
▼ Call Me Lucky by Dale Watson (Red House). If there’s a better, more authentic, harder-working, and more prolific purveyor of old-fashioned honky-tonk music than Watson, I sure haven’t heard of him or her. Dale Watson is a little guy with a big white pompadour and a powerful baritone that’s similar to that of Waylon Jennings, though sometimes reminiscent of Johnny Cash. He’s got humor and soul, an amazing (and amazingly consistent) band, and a work ethic that would put most of us to shame. I’ve seen him play the Continental Club in Austin on both Christmas and Thanksgiving nights — and once, I saw him play at the Broken Spoke, also in the Texas capital, for three hours without taking a single break. And the records keep coming. By my count, this is Watson’s sixth album since 2015.
In the past year or so, Watson bought a second home, so he now splits his residency between Austin and Memphis. And yes, you can hear echoes of both Sun rockabilly and Stax soul in Lucky (though not as much as in his 2011 offering The Sun Sessions, which was recorded at the studio where Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins made their magic).
A few songs, including “Tupelo Mississippi & a 57 Fairlane,” “Inside View,” and “Who Needs This Man,” feature a horn section. Willie Nelson’s harmonica man Mickey Raphael, sort of a one-man horn section himself, graces some songs here, including “Johnny and June,” on which Watson trades lines of love with his real-life girlfriend Celine Lee.
In two songs here, Watson jokingly questions his own intelligence. “I know that I’m not smarter than nearly anyone/I’m just lucky,” he sings in the title track. And backed by a classic Johnny Cash chunka-chunka beat in “The Dumb Song,” Watson pokes fun at his own dumb habits. But Watson is far from dumb. If you’re smart, you’ll give this album a listen.
▼ Stand Tall by Jason Ringenberg (Courageous Chicken Entertainment). With Jason & The Scorchers, the band that made him famous (well, kinda famous), Ringenberg is the guy who brought cowpunk to Nashville. There’s no question he’s a rocker, but he’s got country in his heart. That was obvious even back in the days when he was sporting a Mohawk along with a red sparkly C&W jacket. And it’s even more obvious on this, his latest solo album.
Starting off with the spaghetti Western-style instrumental title song, this album is populated with hard-edged honky-tonkers like “Many Happy Hangovers to You,” a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” a sweet, fiddle-colored ode to nature, “Here in the Sequoias,” and a country-waltz version of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina.”
There are songs praising The Ramones (based on the time The Scorchers backed them on a 1982 tour through Texas), environmentalist pioneer John Muir, and John the Baptist (who Ringenberg says “was a real humdinger”).
Stand Tall is not nearly as political as Ringenberg’s last proper solo record, 2004’s Empire Builders. (I’m not counting the children’s records he’s released under the name of Farmer Jason.) There’s a fife-and-drums Civil War ballad, “I’m Walking Home,” which is anti-war, as well as anti-slavery: “Well, I hated slavery and all that support it/But I hate the Union for what it’s become,” the Confederate deserter sings.
▼ Dancing Shadows by Martha Fields (Martha Fields Music). For the past several years, the West Virginia-raised Fields has made the very best country music coming out of France, and maybe even the whole European Union. And I believe this album, released late last year, is the expatriate hillbilly’s best — at least so far. Her band may be French, but they sound like true Americans to me.
Some songs here deal with being a foreigner: the lonesome “Paris to Austin” (with the line “I’ll pretend the Eiffel Tower is a big oil well”) and the bluesy “Exile” (“I’m a stranger in my homeland/So afraid for my homeland/And I hurt for what I’ve left behind”).
There are a couple of nostalgic tunes for her past homes: the bluegrass-touched “West Virginia in My Bones,” and the slow, aching, acoustic “Oklahoma on My Mind.” However, I like the up-tempo country-rockers like “Last Train to Sanesville” (I missed that train years ago!), the dobro-driven “Demona,” and the bluegrass stomp “Maxine.” But the one I keep going back to is the truthfully titled romp called “Hillbilly Bop,” where she sings, “Well, brother’s got the moonshine, Daddy’s got molasses/Get off your hillbilly asses/You gotta hillbilly bop.” Sound advice, no matter where you live.
More hillbilly boppin’: Tracks from all three of these albums, plus a lot more, can be heard on my most recent episode of The Big Enchilada. In fact, I named the episode after a certain Martha Fields song. Listen and/or download at tinyurl.com/hillbillybop.