Every generation of country musicians has their version of the anti-Nashville crowd. Be it those trading in the Bakersfield sound in the ’60s, the outlaws of the ’70s, alt- and revivalist country acts in the ’80s and ’90s, each stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing trends coming out of Music City. The 21st century has proven to be no exception, producing an amalgamation of all previous forms of stylistic rebellion that offers a little bit of everything for everyone looking for a more “real” alternative to the likes of Kane Brown.
The last decade, in particular, has seen a rise in outlaw revivalists – from Jamey Johnson to Chris Stapleton to Sturgill Simpson – who have adopted the basic tenants of their musical forefathers and updated it for a new generation of listeners looking for a bit more substance in their country music. Indeed, it would seem we are in the midst of a virtual outlaw renaissance with the rise of Stapleton, Simpson, the whole Red Dirt scene and others walking the line between traditional country music and Southern rock.
There seems to be no shortage of talent capable of carrying the torch, proving to be both a blessing and a curse; just because there is once again an impressive quantity, it doesn’t always mean that the quality is up to the gold standard. As with any prevailing musical trend, there will be those hangers-on who see an opportunity to make a name for themselves and latch on to whatever happens to be the flavor of the week. Because of the market saturation, sorting the wheat from the proverbial chaff has become increasingly difficult. Yet there continue to be pleasant surprises hiding amongst the masses who spent their time taking apart old Waylon and Willie songs and rebuilding them in their own, 21st-century image.
Alex Williams is certainly indebted to both Waylon and Willie, something very much evidenced on Better Than Myself. From his baritone delivery to the subject matter that displays a consistent reliance on drugs and alcohol or some combination therein (not to mention roping in a few country music vets in A-list steel guitarist Dan Dugmore and Willie Nelson’s right-hand man, harmonica player Mickey Raphael), Williams has done his homework in terms of cultivating an outlaw country persona for the modern era. What others who’ve opted for similar paths have failed to glean is the underlying sense of humor and lack of self-seriousness that permeated many of the outlaw greats’ catalogs. It’s more than simply adopting an outlaw persona lyrically or, more superficially, in appearance; rather the basic outlaw undercurrent is a certain degree of levity which helps to underscore some of the darker thematic elements.
Of course, this doesn’t mean one has to go full Roger Miller or
Hee Haw with their approach, but rather more along the lines of Shel Silverstein – less the over the top vocal histrionics – on Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs or Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball. There’s an excellent reason Johnny Cash chose to cover the title song, and it goes well beyond sheer novelty and relies more on the strength of the song, the story it tells and the sentiments contained therein. Williams seems to have taken this basic idea to heart and, on songs like “Freak Flag”, “Week Without a Drink” and “A Little Too Stoned”, he captures that fine, delicate balance between cloying countercultural pandering and overly self-serious parabolic narratives.
It certainly helps that he’s handy with a melody and has a well-worn voice to perfectly underscore and authenticate his 21st century brand of outlaw country. “I was told not long ago / That my songs are better than myself /…That the reckless way I’m living, it don’t match my melodies / That the written words I’m singing, they ain’t got no honesty,” he sings over a Delta blues guitar on opening track “Better Than Myself”. It’s a bold opening statement and one that helps set the tone for the rest of Better Than Myself, Williams showing his tongue to be firmly placed within his cheek.
Similarly, “Hellbent Hallelujah” is Waylon via Dwight, the Bakersfield shuffle perfectly suited to Williams’ delivery. “Well I’m hellbent for one more hallelujah / There’s just so many ways that life can screw you,” he sings as the chorus crescendos into pure honky tonk. It’s not all Southern-fried humor, of course. On “Few Short Miles (Bobby’s Song)” he paints a heartfelt character study of an older man who offered some sage advice as well as a few good jokes and an appreciation for Williams’ writing. It’s a deceptively affecting rumination on mortality rendered as a short story with both a moral and pathos.
Better Than Myself, Alex Williams shows himself to be a talent to keep an eye on, a winning songwriter who manages to mix humor with traditional country sentiment without falling into hokey pastiche. A fine opening statement, Better Than Myself is better than most and well worth a listen by fans of classic and retro country of the highest order.