For every critical and commercial success, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of artists and albums equally worthy of consideration who slip through the cracks, finding favor with only a select few along the way. With any luck, however, these select few will find themselves vindicated when a modern label comes along to rescue said album or artist from the dustbin of history. Given the reissue-mad culture in which we are currently finding ourselves, it seems some newly uncovered lost classic or underappreciated masterpiece is released each and every week. And while most are gross overestimations of an album’s worth in hopes of finding favor in the rabid collector market hell-bent on finding the latest and greatest of the ill-fated, there are occasional releases that truly merit further attention beyond the PR hype required to get any sort of notice in an increasingly crowded market.
Founded by Conor Oberst and Nate Krenkel in 2003, Team Love Records is the latest unlikely entrant on the reissue/rediscovery scene after more than a decade of releasing a mixture of indie pop and singer-songwriter fare from the likes of Tilly and the Wall and David Dondero. Having undertaken a curatorial approach with the release of a handful of material from Jemima James, they continue to excavate the lesser known corners of 20th century American music with the release of Billy Stoner’s self-titled, 1980 album. As is often the case with these types of undertakings, Billy Stoner has direct ties to the aforementioned James, making this part of a rabbit hole of sorts down which the Team Love team seems keen on exploring to its fullest extent.
Recorded in 1980 at Longview Farm in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, Billy Stoner’s roots are about as far from the New England environs in which it was recorded as one can get. Born in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, Stoner eventually made his way to Texas at a time when the outlaw country scene was beginning to offer a viable alternative to the Nashville assembly line. Playing in a handful of outlaw and progressive country groups throughout the 1970s – in addition to spending plenty of time in that most country music of careers as a long-haul truck driver – Stoner began to make a name for himself. And while this ultimately never amounted to much more than this album, it nonetheless serves as a time capsule for an era of country music that served as a truer link between past and present than anything Nashville was producing at the time.
With a gruff, whiskey-and-cigarettes-soaked voice pitched somewhere between Waylon Jennings and John Prine, Stoner inhabits the grand Texas tradition of the outlaw troubadour. From the self-mythologizing in the autobiographical “Lookout Mountain” to the straight-ahead outlaw country of “Honky Tonk Fever”, Stoner checks all the requisite boxes for underappreciated songwriters in need of a critical reassessment. Relying on a no-frills, ramshackle group of backing musicians, Billy Stoner has a loose, lived-in quality that enlivens Stoner’s tales of long-haul truckers, outlaws and morally ambiguous men and women just trying to make their way in the world. Indeed, “Lordy Lordy” is very nearly as good as anything Jennings, Prine or even Willie Nelson recorded around the same time, a lost shoulda-been-hit ripe for rediscovery.
“Benny’s Tune” follows the ill-fated career of a would-be country star who strikes out for Nashville only to be, like so many, turned away, succumbing to his own demons. It’s a bittersweet song of a life lived well but short of fulfilling its potential that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-‘70s Tom Waits album, Stoner’s voice a phlegmatic growl. At a short nine songs, Billy Stoner is a relatively slight slice of outlaw country from the tail end of the genre’s heyday. But thanks to the folks at Team Love, it’s one that has been rescued from obscurity and made available to the broader audience it so richly deserves. While not necessarily an overlooked masterpiece, Billy Stoner is nevertheless is a lost classic offering a massive question mark with regard to what might have been had it gotten its due when originally released. Look no further than closing track “If You Want the Candy” for the best outlaw country anthem very few have ever heard.
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