Gary Bennett yearns for the gold old days before John F. Kennedy was shot, when America considered itself a great nation. You know, when boys could be boys and believe in the honor of their country, and when girls knew their roles as mothers and wives. Ah, those golden years of long ago, before the crass commercialism had invaded every nook and cranny of our popular culture and working twenty-four/seven wasn’t as important as being at home with the family.
This vision of life informs all twelve songs on Bennett’s debut solo album. This former founding member of the legendary country group BR5-49 pours forth his heart and soul on his new album, and it’s as corny as anything of the Nashville music he used to poke fun of. That doesn’t make this is a bad record. In fact, the dozen songs of the simple life offer much enjoyment. It’s just kinda strange and annoying that Bennett settles for this when the evidence of his considerable talents shines through the thin material like sunlight pouring through a summer dress. What’s revealed promises more than what’s delivered, but it’s still a pretty apparition.
The USA that Bennett desires is more phony, or maybe more mythic, than anything that actually existed. It’s like watching old Leave it to Beaver episodes as social history. The great poet Allen Ginsberg once referred to this vision in a poem written even before JFK was president as “the lost America of love”. Bennett is no Ginsberg (nor Walt Whitman), but he is a much better musician and composes more interesting tunes. Bennett’s self-penned lyrics are more evocative than poetic, but he makes his points clearly.
Consider “American Dreamin’”. Bennett starts the tune with distorted electric guitar feedback and slashing chord riffs reminiscent of the ‘60s pop hit “Shape of Things to Come”. While it’s impossible to know how deliberate the reference is, the strong similarity seems intentional and adds depth to the song. “Shape of Things to Come” was the key number from the movie Wild in the Streets, in which Hal Holbrook plays a Kennedy-like politician who panders to the youth vote to the eventual detriment of the country. Bennett takes off on this point to wish for an earlier period of history. “I want to take my girl to a Rockwell world / Find a little house in sleepy town / I want to hear Paul Harvey on the radio / Tell how the dream has come back around”. Bennett dreams of a more innocent time in an angry tone, but this ignores how bad that era was for so many. One doesn’t have to be Howard Zinn to understand how hollow that reality was for so many citizens.
Page two, the rest of the story: While “American Dreamin’” may be the most explicit allusion to the past, the rest of the tunes on the disc proffer this same sham of the uncomplicated life. Even the song titles suggest this: “Headin’ Home”, “Things That Mean a Lot”, “Just Wanna Be With You”, That’s What I’m Here For”, “Ain’t Getting’ Younger”, etc. The concepts behind the material are no more complex than the names indicate (i.e. “Headin’ Home” is about someone who is lonely on the road and can’t wait to get back home, the “Things That Mean a Lot” are the little things, and so on.). Still, the songs do have their charm, in part because Bennett keeps things simple. He has a smooth voice that sounds sincere and never reaches for a note. He also employs some excellent musicians, including Kenny Vaughn (Marty Stuart) on guitar, Jimmy Lester (Los Straitjackets) on drums, and Mark Winchester (Emmylou Harris) on bass. Marty Stuart guests on mandolin on several cuts, as does Country Music Hall of Fame pedal steel guitar player Lloyd Green.
Bennett bemoans the “Human Condition”, which he explains on the title track is that everyone always wants what s/he hasn’t got. That’s probably true of the man himself. Bennett says he longs for a simpler time, but I bet he wouldn’t be happy if his wishes came true. He sounds wiser than that, and it’s too easy to criticize a cartoonish view of the present, where everyone has forgotten the basic truths. Bennett is a very talented musician who has made an enjoyable album. He makes the listener want what one hasn’t got—a more complex record that shows what how rich life is with all its problems. This is the true existential human condition.