Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys get tagged as “retro” and it’s true, but their expressed love for musical history marks them as not a gimmick, but formalists interested in a handful of very specific musical styles – early rock n’ roll, R&B, rockabilly and western swing. To mark their 25th anniversary playing music from this general field, they’ve decided against compiling their ‘hits’. Instead, on What a Dream It’s Been they’re revisiting and trying to revitalize songs from their whole career, from their 1990 debut album Fly Right With Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Trio to 2006’s Turntable Matinee.
It’s a mainly acoustic album, which surprisingly at times make it sound a bit thin compared to their past studio albums. The oldest songs here are the ones best served by the new versions. In some cases the songs sound truly reborn, as with “Missouri Gal”, from their debut – this time quite hard-driving for the acoustic setting – or “Glad When I’m Gone” from 1992’s On the Go, their second album.
The latter song drives forward with that railroad-type groove. But it also has within Big Sandy’s voice—and some of the guitar playing, as quick-fingered as it is—a mixture of sadness and bitterness. “I wonder how you’d feel / If I walked out on this deal”, he wonders. “Would you be glad that I’m gone?” It seems like he knows the answer, but isn’t sure if it’s what he wants to hear. Or maybe it is – at the song’s end, when he changes “would” to “will”, you know he’s already out the door.
The looseness and bounciness of the songs can offer a new dose of energy, or not. The most recent album’s “I Know I’ve Loved You Before” pales in comparison to the original because the brighter sound and faster pace makes it feel more frivolous – more like light beach-party fare than a soul-searching ballad about the mysteries of love. That sand-and-sun setting fits better on songs like “Baby Baby Me” (from his 1998 solo effort Dedicated to You), even if underneath the surface is a similar amount of yearning.
Overall, the band’s approach to these songs is a bit frivolous, or at least purposely light-handed. Still, the album is a nonetheless a fine overview of their material – generally, sad songs with an overt party atmosphere. That, in a sense, is a good description of popular music period, which makes them less a niche act than one with a good understanding of the bigger picture.