Rockabilly remade in Ohio by a skin-headed fella in a buttercup yellow cowboy suit sounds pretty good. But first, let me explain this is not the wooden bass slapping, stand-up bass-twirling, over-twanged, high-combed and water-falled, brylcreamed and blue jeaned extravagance of many retro rockabilly wannabes. No, this is very close indeed to the bouncing easy-going spirit of rockabilly back when it was young and just learning to kick up its heels in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Backed here on his first solo outing by the Southern Diplomats, Justin Lute‘s come up with a respectable offering with his Adventures of Lori Lou. The music is bright and cheerful as a sunny day. By the time anyone finishes listening to this, they’ll be in a far better mood in spite of themselves.
Just the name Southern Diplomats hearkens back to an era filled with Chuck Berry’s amiable and playful rock ‘n’ roll, especially of course, his “Nadine” (Rhyming “coffee-colored Cadillac” with “campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat”). And that’s how Lute & Co. come across—gentle, amiable, playful, optimistic, and nice-spirited, even in a song bemoaning a relationship that might not root and bloom like “The Decline and Fall of You and Me”. There’s a reason this song centers the album, as relationships seem to be something very important to Lute (the Lori Lou of the album is his wife in real life, and “Lori Lou” the song is a piece of gentle advice to his major heartbeat). Lute can be a nice guy even when he’s feeling bad about a relationship that’s temporarily floundering. And “temporarily” is the operative word. The key to understanding Lute & Co. is recognizing how the optimism woven through the background of the tunes can help make getting through life a bit easier, the bumps in life’s road are often smoothed out by an individual’s perception and world view.
Even a country weeper like “Sweet Understanding” with the sob and sigh of pedal steel is a lesson in the significance of relationships: “A gentle commanding / A sweet understanding / We don’t go it alone”. Even if bearings are temporarily lost when moving out and around in an unfriendly world, home, hearth, and heart is Lute’s compass point: “The world on display / is fading to gray / as twilight begins / the fog’s rolling in / no, nothing is clear / but I know where to steer”. He can’t wait to make it back to the warm and friendly environs of home, to love and be loved.
The pitch of Lute’s voice is high and a bit tart, and most songs are gentle rockers. There is nothing hard-edged to be found here. The backing accompaniment is typically flat-picked acoustic with sparse and tasteful accents of mandolin, fiddle, and a country-style drummer who stays way in the background as timekeeper. The most raucous tune is “Unadulterated Love” with the muted twang of electric guitar and the subdued squeal of Boots Randolph-like sax runs. Lute and his lyric material are accorded full center stage.
With titles like “Miss Feeling Pretty”, “Your Own Sweet Angel Song”, and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” you can guess that this is some sweet stuff he’s singing about and he’s singing about it in a sweet way. Just a bit of banjo and some dobro add to the easy perk of country-style electric guitar runs in “Since You’ve Been Gone”. Respectful and loving, happy in a relationship, and living for love, that’s Justin Lute. You don’t often hear lyrics like these nowadays: “Speak your name / And I feel a thrill / You said I do / I said I will” and maybe that’s why this is such a refreshing foray. Kind of like having the sun manage to first peek out and then stay out one whole day in January.
Described as “fine Americana music out of Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.”, Adventures of Lori Lou is a promising first offering from a musician just starting out, and Justin Lute is already beginning to pick up speed. Columbus is a big city in Ohio, but if Lute & Co. were a local group in my town playing week-ends in a local bar, I’d take a bit of home-town pride in their skills. Beginning to edge out of his stomping grounds, Lute’s opened for the likes of the Cigar Store Indians and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, which says there appears to be a ready niche for easy-going optimism and wanting to spread some cheer, and that has to be a good thing.