Luther Wright has got some serious heart problems. While the literal-minded might see the Sacred Heart aflame on the cover of his latest album, Guitar Pickin’ Martyrs, and think Wright and his backing band, the Wrongs, are suffering from heartburn, they’d be wrong. And ignorant—heartburn has nothing to do with one’s heart. Ha. But I digress. Wright’s problems are more along the lines of the metaphorical; namely, he’s got a broken heart. Throughout Martyrs, Wright proves himself to be a fool for love, time and again having his heart raked over the coals. Sure, he gets wiser with every heartache, but he never learns his lesson.
It’s all to the listeners’ benefit, though. Wright can’t be a guitar pickin’ martyr, singing songs about heartbreak, if he knows nothing of the topic. Song titles alone—“Broken Fuckin’ Heart”, “I’m Not Okay”, and “Not Feeling Fine”—should be proof enough that Wright’s an authority on love gone wrong, but he and his band drape their songs in plaintive steel guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Even if English is Greek to you, the Wrongs just sound like hopeless romantics.
But if you understand English—and the odds are pretty good, since you’re reading this—then Guitar Pickin’ Martyrs reveals even more delicate lyrical treats. Some are a little too sweet: The barroom swing of “Devious Dissembler” nearly gets derailed by the titular character’s “Bishop Desmond Tutu curly hair” (granted, a keen observation, but: Huh?) and five-dollar words like “subservience” and “clandestine” fall thickly off Wright’s tongue. Fortunately, despite (or because of) Wright’s unpretentious (read: plain) voice, most words and phrases drip from his mouth like warm honey. “I get a hard-on or cry at the drop of a hat”, he notes on “Not Feeling Fine”. Even though the man’s heart hurts like hell, Wright’s still got a sharp sense of humor—like a true romantic.
Elsewhere, Wright’s keen wit shine through: “If looks could really kill then I’d be dead / You’d be in jail behind bars making license plates for cars” he tells an ex-lover on the newgrassy “Broken Fuckin’ Heart” (ain’t that the worst kind?) and on “Darlin’”, Wright’s lovesick narrator recognizes that even if his girlfriend who treats him like shit “stand[s] me up / I’m still ahead of all the chumps you never knew and that’s the truth”. Wright’s characters all realize that they are powerless in the face of love, no matter how wrong it is, and they might as well roll with the punches. And just to make sure there’s no confusion over Wright’s theory that we can’t control who we fall in love with, Guitar Pickin’ Martyrs’ liner notes feature cheesy clip art drawings of Cupid—the real culprit in all this lovely mess.
Of course, an album called Guitar Pickin’ Martyrs has its fair share of nifty guitar work, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Dan Curtis, a triple threat on electric guitar, lap steel, and banjo, gets most of the deserved accolades, though Chris Quinn’s banjo solo on “My Heart, My Heart” gets my vote for the album’s best. Wright must hate to be lonely, because there are 13 musicians credited in Martyrs’ liner notes, but there’s not a wasted note from any of them. Hell, there’s even a guy (Spencer Evans) playing clarinet on “Darlin’”.
An album with a title like Guitar Pickin’ Martyrs arrives on shelves with a built-in audience, but anybody who has had a broken heart (and likes to revel in the misery of brokenheartedness) will find something to relate to on Martyrs. And those who first learned of Wright from his Pink Floyd re-imagination, Rebuilding the Wall, will be pleased to see that Wright is more than just a one-trick pony. If you’re one of the lucky (?) few to be spared heartache, then enjoy the rocking tunes. Or, in Wright’s terms, from “Race to the Top”: “That hillbilly music… you don’t hear on the radio”.