San Diego country newcomers The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash have released the type of debut album that must really frustrate young artists. Listening to it gives one a palpable sense that this band must be so good live, but just couldn't translate their strengths to the studio. The pieces of an top-flight live group are all here: tough and emotive lead singer, deft pedal-steel guitar player, stinging live electric guitar slinger, and a positively rock-solid and locked-in rhythm section. Where did things go wrong?
The primary culprit is the production. Lead singer Mark Stuart produced the LP, which is an expanded version of the Bands 1999 EP, Lasso Motel. Curiously, he has opted for a slick, pristine sound that undercuts the biting attack of the band. In particular, the guitars and vocals are far too clean. The Bakersfield sound was certainly slicker than some of the raunchy alt-country purveyed by the No Depression crowd in the last five years, but it was also marked by ragged intensity. The sound on I Walk Alone misses this completely and ends up as a limp-sounding album that is sonically akin to modern mainstream country rather than the putative forbears of the band.
With the overall sound of the band somewhat weak, the success or failure of I Walk Alone turns on the songwriting. Unfortunately, the band falls a bit short in this department as well. Stuart is the primary songwriter for the band, and he demonstrates a thorough familiarity with the idiom of honky tonk music. But his familiarity is not complemented by much originality, and the themes and style of his writing are derivative to excess. The album contains no less than four songs about trucking, a topic of dubious emotional value outside of being a nod to tradition. The balance of the songs basically address love gone wrong or love gone really wrong.
Lyrically, Stuart uses an unadorned style that aims to recall the directness of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Buck Owens. Sadly, he lacks their subtlety and sense of drama. This is made all too clear by the inclusion of Haggard's "Silver Wings". The easy, lyrical elegance of this gem stands out from among the relative sameness of the material penned by Stuart. Stuart's style is workmanlike, but rather bland. Even a cursory rundown of the titles makes one wonder if there are not a half-dozen songs already with these names: "Interstate Cannonball", "Walk Alone", "Lonesome Sky", "Train's Gonna Fly". Stuart unabashedly turns phrases like, "She's got the body of a woman but inside / She's another little girl", or "The lonely lights of another lonely town / lonely highway I keep on rushing down". Even giving him points for idiomatic accuracy, this is some fairly hoary territory.
This is not to say that I Walk Alone is a complete bust. There are several excellent moments as well. The opening track, "Texas Sun", is a rollicking, raucous shuffle that hints at a truly great live band somewhere beneath the overly-slick veneer of the production. "7 Steps" is a rhythmic treat that shows that BSOJC owes a debt to The Mavericks, although it is a difficult one to pay without Raul Malo's magnificent voice. Stuart turns in his finest vocal performance on "Lonesome Sky", a classic weeper that also marks the lyrical high point of the album.
"Crying Over You" offers a glimpse at the real potential of BSOJC. With the rhythm section in lock step, sprightly acoustic guitars set off at a gallop, supported by keening pedal steel guitar and stuttering electric leads. Stuart's weathered baritone unloads emotional lyrics ("Show me something honey show me / One damn thing I'll understand / show me how you do it how you keep / me eating from your hand . . ."). The two instrumental breaks find lead guitarist Alex Watts and pedal steel player Scott Hall firing back and forth, trading fours like they must do on stage night after night. For a few minutes you can see the light go on. This, you think, must be the feeling that led Merle Haggard to recruit this group to open for him. This is real "outlaw" country- brash, intense and powerful. And hopefully, this is what we will here more of in the future from Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash.