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Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash
Walk Alone
Ultimatum


This is the tale of a record by a band with an eye-catching name. The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash caused a bit of a stir with their name. What most people didn’t realize is that they had the complete blessing of the Man In Black himself. So, that makes you think…if it’s good enough for the namesake to approve the use of his name, then it’s gotta be one hell of a record. Hey, Cash is no slouch when it comes to taste. The early promo copies of this record sparked a few writers to proclaim this band to be a band to watch—and the album wasn’t even complete yet. It contained only nine of the 12 tunes that appear on the final version, and it didn’t sound quite as good. But the record drew people in slowly and surely…including this writer. What I love about this job is being pleasantly surprised by records I might not have heard otherwise. The first few listens of the promo sparked a bit of an interest in me, but then that self-titled release was replaced by this updated gem, Walk Alone and I was taken hook, line and sinker. I found myself being drawn to its Bakersfield-esque sound and a heavy emphasis on good ol’ solid country music. This ain’t no "Achy Breaky Heart" styled country. This is a truck drivin’ record. It can be a personal record at times and is also the best record I have heard up ‘til this point in the year. There is much to say about Walk Alone, so let’s cut the crap and get on with it.

You’ve gotta be drawn into a record that opens with a rambling country structure and the lines "Well I woke up I drank a fifth today/Gonna chase my blues away and here’s why." On "Texas Sun," lead vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Mark Stuart proceeds to weave a tale of drinkin’, seein’ the judge and, of course, women. Like many classic country tunes, the familiar topic of self destruction invades "Texas Sun" at times. And like most of those old tunes, the destructive ideas get lost in the loping rhythm and interjected harmonies. "Blade" showcases Stuart’s rich baritone fully for the first time. His sorrowful reading of the lyrics are augmented by subtle, and almost eerie steel guitar bits. The standard, yet loping Bakersfield rhythm settles down and provides the perfect amount of movement to emphasize the sorrowful undertones. Stuart’s lyric writing continues to show depth here, keeping the cliches to a minimum while covering the common topic of lost love. There is almost a bit of Tex-Mex in the guitar work of "Seven Steps." A little more shuffle invades the rhythm track, while Alex Watts provides a slightly Music For All Occasions-era Mavericks sound. Scott Hall brings on a traditional sounding pedal steel refrain that propels the song to new heights.

Where this record really excels is in the "truck-drivin’" tunes that abound on this record. The key to a good truck driving tune not only lies in the forward motion of the rhythm track, but also in lyrical content. BSOJC have got both of these ideas honed perfectly. The first of these tunes is "Interstate Cannonball." From his opening observation of "I’m drinkin’ black coffee with amphetamine, got a ten ton load swinging on with me" coupled with a pedal to the metal rhythm, you’ve got the perfect ingredients for a speeding ticket. Stuart’s other observations of sleeping with waitresses, listening to country music that actually drags him down, and all the lonely towns and miles he logged are written quite cleverly—he avoids cliches again and forges ahead with his own thoughts. There’s plenty of burning pedal steel and guitar here to do the title justice. Just to allow you to ease back on the throttle, they break it down into a standard country ballad structure for "Walk Alone." I urge every woman to listen to the words to this tune if they’ve ever thought that they were the only ones to really be effected by fouled relationships. Stuart tells of hanging out at the bars, listening to Sinatra, and being alone to help ease the pain of a broken heart. This tale of lonesomeness blends perfectly in between these truckin’ tunes, as loneliness certainly is a part of the trucker’s life. The following "Truckstop In La Grange" is a Dale Watson tune, and Watson (who is the modern king of roadhouse truck driving music) must be proud of the outcome. The groove is heady and does justice to Watson’s signature blues influenced country sound. Stuart’s voice also fits the lyrics perfectly…it could almost be one of his own tunes if you didn’t know better. This ode to a little Texas truckstop east of Austin is just marvelous. If you’ve ever been road-trippin' and stopped at a good place with a ton of semis parked outside, you will identify with the "damn good cup of coffee and some mighty, mighty fine kolache" and that pretty waitress behind the counter. You might have even purchased the same "tape of Ray Price Gold" referenced here. This tune itself acts like that truckstop…causing you to feel rejuvenated and wanting to speed down the highway even further. "Thank God for that little-bitty truckstop in La Grange" indeed! Next we get another Stuart driving tune. "440 Horses" is one of his best uses of lyrical imagery. The rambling (you don’t get to use that word enough) yet easy going country groove is filled with subtle and effective melodic guitar riffs. Another stellar ballad follows, yet doesn’t ruin the momentum built by the previous tunes. "Lonesome Sky" is again a standard ballad that showcases Stuart’s vocals. There’s plenty of acoustic guitar and lilting melodies here. Steel guitar weeps here and there in cahoots with somber guitar lines. You can feel the sorrow all around here, from the instrumentation to Stuart’s lament. One more truck driving tune follows with "Train’s Gonna Roll." This time, the boys opt for a bit more swinging rock influence---I don’t want to say Southern Rock or Outlaw Country, but instead falling somewhere in between vintage Tom Petty and The Backsliders. Although there’s more rock in here, BSOJC integrate it with country harmonies and a heady acoustic rhythm emphasizing the country while using the rock judiciously and purely for coloring.

"Memphis Woman" is one of the prettiest tunes I’ve heard in some time. The best term I can use to describe it is haunting. If there really were such a thing as "ethereal country" this would have to be the poster-tune. A quiet, brushed drum pattern supports a restrained acoustic framework. On top of this, Watt’s guitar licks color the whole landscape. They ebb and flow as easily and as effortlessly as a deer bounding across a pastoral meadow and never sound as if they’re being forced. Again we are treated to another of Stuart’s best vocals. His voice is really a powerful force here, and the sparing use of double-tracked vocals adds to the mysterious feel of the tune. On top of all this, it’s still hummable enough to stick in your head for weeks…literally. As the tune wanes and draws to a close, you can feel the tingles go up your spine. This tune is indeed a work of art. How can you follow up something like this? Well, the Bastards follow it up with one of Merle Haggard’s best tunes, "Silver Wings." They treat it with the utmost respect with a fairly straightforward reading. Stuart’s vocals express the emotion of The Hag without attempting to be a carbon copy. Their colorings to the tune update it for today, but the heart and soul remains. And, just for good measure, the boys leave you wanting more with the closing "Cryin’ Over You." This swing inspired country jump is a party waiting to happen. Touches of rock-a-billy guitar up the ante and beg you to grab yer gal and hit the dancefloor. And if you were to start the record over again from here, it would lead you back into "Texas Sun" without batting an eye.

I just recently relocated to North Carolina from Texas, and this record spent a lot of time in the truck’s CD player over the 24-hour drive. You can’t get much better driving music than this record. It is easy to find yourself 20 over the speed limit while listening to this record. It begs your involvement and attention, and just pumps you up…urging you on down the road. Walk Alone is one completely tight and perfectly arranged record from beginning to end. Songs meld from one to another despite the slight stylistic differences in each. Even if you’ve lasted long enough to read this whole review, I cannot do justice to this record. With the current state of flux in country music (with an overwhelming proportion of it that poor commercial country that’s just pop music with a fiddle or steel) The Bastards may have a hard time getting heard. Is it the name that’s keeping programmers from adding this to their playlists? It is just too country for modern country radio? Maybe somebody can answer this for me…but it certainly would be a damn shame for these guys to get swept under the carpet. And as I said before, if the year were to end today, this would be top dog for me. It still stands a very good chance of that happening as it will be hard for anyone (no matter the genre) to put together such a consistent, heartfelt, and enjoyable record to listen to as Walk Alone.

— tom topkoff

Track Listing:

  1. Texas Sun
  2. Blade
  3. Seven Steps
  4. Interstate Cannonball
  5. Walk Alone
  6. Truckstop In La Grange
  7. 440 Horses
  8. Lonesome Sky
  9. Train’s Gonna Roll
  10. Memphis Woman
  11. Silver Wings
  12. Cryin’ Over You

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Mike Doughty



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