Willie Wright: Telling The Truth

Jer Fairall

Archival label The Numero Group rescues lost album by forgotten 70s soul crooner and gives it the usual labor of love treatment.

Willie Wright

Telling The Truth

Label: The Numero Group
US Release Date: 2011-01-25
UK Release Date: 2011-01-31

There are lost records, obscure cult favorites rescued from oblivion by heroic record labels and tenacious fan bases, and then there is something like Willie Wright’s Telling The Truth, where the very fact that anyone has the chance to hear it in 2011 is something of a minor miracle. Telling The Truth is an album whose origins might very well redefine the parameters of what we think constitutes “lost” or “obscure” in our current web environment, where every conceivable piece of music is available as long as you know where to search and have the right passwords or invites.

Willie Wright’s backstory, told in elliptical fragments across the nearly barren pool of sources that exist on him, has the soulful crooner performing in dive bars and street corners for much of the '60s and '70s before finding work playing cover songs for the members of a private Nantucket yacht club. During the off-season, Wright started composing a set of originals, which he laid down in a New York studio the following spring in a one-day session before heading back to the resort stages for another summer. Whatever he was able to sell during those appearances is 1977 is what constitutes Telling The Truth’s original run.

Rescued from oblivion by The Numero Group, the tireless archival label specializing in the excavation of soul, funk, disco, and other scattered Americana rarities, Telling The Truth might very well represent an impressive coup even by their crate-digging standards. Listening to this album evokes the unique magic of happening across a recording that you could have only discovered by sheer accident--something found in the dusty discount bin of a used record store, or a dog-eared vinyl cover stacked unassumingly among the discarded relics in a relative’s attic or on the table of a neighbor’s garage-sale ephemera.

Yet it may be this album’s status as an arcane piece of pop history that defines its appeal far more than the music itself might be capable of on its own. Heard in the context of its era, one imagines these songs might have sounded merely ordinary--gently funky yet wistfully unobtrusive slices of easy listening soul in an idiom likely omnipresent in its time but largely unidentifiable today for lack of current practitioners. If Wright sounds distinctly like anyone who might be recognizable to modern ears, it is Bill Withers, with whom Wright shares both a rich vocal similarity and a distinct approach to 70s soul music that is nevertheless rooted more in the intimate acoustic shadings of Cat Stevens and James Taylor than in the vibrant showmanship of James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone.

Wright is neither as commanding a singer nor anywhere near as indelible a lyricist as the singular Withers, to be sure, but this only further serves to highlight the appeal of Telling The Truth, namely how seamlessly it exists as part of its era rather than in any way defining it. The album’s greatest charms are found in the touches that feel anachronistic even amidst the wide embrace of today’s retro-fetishism: the breezy calypso flavor of “Nantucket Island”, the gritty funk guitar twists of “I’m So Happy Now”, the brief flash of “Like a Hurricane”-like guitar blaring and then dissolving into the otherwise quaint setting of “Love Is Expensive”, the rambling narrative of “Indian Reservation” (today’s singer-songwriters tending to favor succinct verses over song-length stories), the pristine supper-club atmosphere of “Lady of the Year” and “In The Beauty Of The Night”, and the whistling jazz flutes that pop up throughout the whole record. With 21st century sonic landscape so often resembling a dazzling smorgasbord of sounds from every conceivable nook and cranny of 20th century pop music, the very experience of hearing something like this, a recording that could not have possibly come from any time, past or present, than its very own, has become something of a rare and oddly thrilling novelty.

Given the album’s 30-plus-year obsolescence, it would be positively ludicrous to expect this reissue to come adorned with any extras at all, but Numero Group have even delivered on that seemingly impossible front. Both the CD and the vinyl editions of their release come with a bonus single containing Wright’s lone 45 release, a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Right On For The Darkness”, its original b-side (the overly didactic “Africa”), and a playful earlier Wright original called “Lack of Education”. Once again proving The Numero Group’s eye for record-nerd-baiting intricacy, these extras are not tacked onto the end of the album in usual bonus-track fashion but rather included, on the vinyl, as an extra 7” replica or, for the CD, an actual functioning 5” single, giving this lost gem the labor of love treatment that goes valiantly beyond the call of duty.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.