Kevin Deal comes by his blue-collar, country roots honestly. Before pursuing music professionally, he worked for ten years in Dallas as a stone contractor -- after all, the man had a wife and five kids to support. Although these days Deal may be working with a guitar, not a trowel, his fourth album in five years, The Lawless, reflects the craftsmanship of any good artisan and builds on his previous work, especially his 2001 album Kiss on the Breeze. From its solid songwriting and thematic coherence, both musical and lyrical, to its careful performances and production, The Lawless is a compelling country album, the kind of understated gem that Nashville now seems incapable of creating in a business environment that focuses not on the music but on subjects like Tim and Faith's marriage, Shania's life in her Swiss chateau, and Kenny Chesney's workout and dating habits.
First, a bit of background. Kevin Deal, 40, grew up around music. As he explains on his website, "I love my dad, but he's probably not the best singer in the whole world. Still, he'd sing along to every song on the radio. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones -- I listened to a lot of country music growin' up." Deal's mother, who could sing, shared hymns with the family, and his grandfather gave Deal a harmonica as a child. As a teen, Deal began listening to rock and started a band, but when he started a family, he gave up music to be a full-time contractor. The early '90s found the business firmly established, so he started splitting his time with music and began playing harmonica around Dallas, which led to a connection with Curly "Barefoot" Miller and other Texas musicians. Mark David Manders eventually signed Deal to Blind Nello Records and introduced him to producer/multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines.
Maines is back for The Lawless. In a recent email, Deal says of the relationship, "I love working with Lloyd. He's a true professional, an extraordinary man, and a gift artist, producer, and teacher. There is no one who has taught me more or deserves more credit." (It's worth noting that some discs sent to Texas radio stations were returned, unopened, to Deal with notes that the stations would have nothing to do with any project associated with Maines and his unruly Dixie Chick daughter.)
Clearly, Deal's been influenced by such Texas greats as Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, and as on any Deal album, the musicianship is first rate. This time, he's got his band regulars: Freddie Lee Spears (mandolin, dobro, lap steel, and electric guitar); Jonny Jackson (bass); and James Perkins (percussion). Other musicians sitting for the album are the always-magnificent Maines, Paul Pearcy, and Terri Hendrix, whose harmony work on tracks like "Freedom for Mary", "Diesel", and "Gideon" provides the voice of the woman trying to understand the outlaw. Spears's absolutely relentless mandolin playing deserves special mention, giving the album a musical authenticity and a driving beat, and it's never afraid to take on an electric guitar.
The Lawless contains ten originals and three covers: Max Stalling's "Freedom for Mary"; Jimmie Davis and Hank Williams' "Lonesome Whistle"; and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Mississippi Kid". (Here Freddie Sparks picks up the vocal, but Deal's standing right there with some blistering harmonica playing. A long-time Skynyrd fan, Deal has been doing "Mississippi Kid" live for about three years and getting a very positive crowd response.)
Deal has always been fascinated by the Saturday Night/Sunday Morning dichotomy that has defined country music -- his 1999 album Honky Tonks and Churches provides a case in point. But with The Lawless, Deal takes his exploration to a new level. Here he's concerned with outlaws, and much of the first half of the album sounds like something Marty Robbins might have recorded for his Gunfighter Ballads. Songs like "Quicker than the Eye", "The Lawless", "Freedom for Mary", and "Back Slidin' Man" examine the lives of those who stay outside the law for whatever reason. As Deal puts it, "I suppose I have probably watched too many westerns; I've always loved history and had an interest in it." (It's worth noting that "The Lawless" has clear thematic echoes of Steve Earle's "Tom Ames' Prayer" while "Back Slidin' Man" is not unlike Robert Earl Keen's "The Road Goes on Forever".)
But Deal is, at heart, a blue-collar musician, and songs like "You Ain't Nobody", about a songwriter unsuccessfully approaching major record labels, and "Diesel", a piece that explores the life of a truck driver, reflect that sensibility. Indeed, much of what happens on the album is that it moves from historical outlaws to contemporary ones, though those we have today are outlawed more by societal changes than moral deficiencies.
The Lawless closes with "Road to Ruin", which finds the singer "Runnin' red lights on the road to ruin" as an electric guitar and a mandolin, the new and the old, blend to describe the universal condition: that we all must decide how to negotiate that road.
Add Kevin Deal to your list of great Texas Singer-Songwriters.