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Let’s go honky tonkin’

The country and jazz music that combine to make honky tonk music go together as pleasurably as those other Southern staples: cold, long neck bottles of beer and spicy BBQ. While both elements are agreeable in themselves, they seem to bring out the best in each other when served jointly. And while there have been modern improvements to the traditional formulas, it’s always the old-fashioned methods that have the richest flavor. No one has ever topped Hank Williams or those other roustabouts from the late ‘40s and ‘50s when it comes to honky tonkin’, but those that have followed the original recipes have made some fine concoctions. Take the Lucky Tomblin Band. The Texas combo’s second record doesn’t do anything new. The group covers classic old material and uses time-honored arrangements. One might easily mistake the new release as an old album of juke box sides that have been reissued on CD. That’s good news for those who like the classic sound of the past.


The players here are the real deal. Consider pianist Earl “Poole” Ball. He’s recorded with everyone from Gram Parsons (including on the Byrds’ classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo) album, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and numerous others before becoming a member of Johnny Cash’s band. Or guitar picker Redd Volkaert, who played with Ray Price, Lacy J. Dalton, and Dale Watson before becoming lead guitarist in Merle Haggard’s Strangers. And then there’s blues bassist Sarah Brown, who’s jammed with Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, and too many other luminaries to mention. And while these three instrumentalists form the core of the band, the other three players (guitarists John Reed and Bobby Arnold and drummer Jon Hahn) are no slouches either. The six of them know how to create danceable rhythms meant for sliding across a sawdust floor or lonely tunes that make one want to reach for a glass of alcohol.


Vocalist Lucky Tomblin leads the group. He’s best known for his production work in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornados, but his career as a singer long predates that. (He once shared a Grand Ol’ Opry stage with Roger Miller, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Ray Price.) Tomblin has a chirpy voice that makes his happy songs sound chipper and adds poignancy to the sad tunes. For example, Tomblin makes Leon Payne’s sweet “You Are the One” a delightfully romantic song whose earnestness is infectious. One believes Tomblin’s joy at finding love, so that by the time he gets to the end of the lyrics (“I love you and I always will”) one has to grin. On the other hand, his cover of the Harlan Howard weeper “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today” has added depth because the sad words contrast with Tomblin’s natural cheerfulness. Tomblin always keeps the songs on an even keel, never allowing his emotions to overwhelm his annunciation of the lyrics or to get in the way of a good instrumental riff. Tomblin allows the players to add ornamentation—a tinkling of piano keys, clean guitar trills, throbbing slap happy bass beats—to keep the material continually interesting.


While Tomblin sings lead on half the tracks, the other players also take turns crooning. Redd Volkaert’s take on Hank Thompson’s novelty tune “Squaws Along the Yukon” is especially noteworthy. Then again, it’s hard to make lines like “She makes her underwear / from the hides of Grizzly bear” sound bad if delivered in the proper boisterous spirit. Sarah Brown takes Moon Mullican’s fast-paced jive “Lonesome Hearted Blues” for a spin and lets the words roll out like a semi passing cars on a two-lane highway. She’s much more concerned about keeping the motion flowing than hitting the high or low notes.


That notion of action or movement, or as that other Hank (Snow) used to say, “Moving on,” is kind of what it means to be in a honky tonk mood, the emotion from which the disc gets its title. Honky Tonkin, might mean drinking or dancing to take the edge off things, but never sitting still. Tomblin and company’s latest disc provides a good soundtrack for these mobile activities.

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Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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