Photo: Cameron L. Gott Photography / Courtesy of All Eyes Media

Jason Boland & the Stragglers Offer Up Straight Roots Country on ‘Hard Times Are Relative’

Endowed with poignant red-dirt storytelling and ace musicality, Jason Boland & the Stragglers offer up unequivocal country music on Hard Times Are Relative.

Hard Times Are Relative
Jason Boland & the Stragglers
Proud Souls Entertainment
18 May 2018

Jason Boland & the Stragglers formed nearly 20 years ago and have maintained their position as cardinal country musicians. Throughout their illustrative career, the band have produced down-home country albums conjuring imagery and inspiration from their native Oklahoma. Their recent endeavor, Hard Times Are Relative, is no exception. Their ninth studio album is a stellar contribution to 2018’s country music scene and worthy of gravitas. Endowed with poignant red-dirt storytelling and ace musicality, Jason Boland & the Stragglers offer unequivocal country music.

Hard Times Are Relative consists of sweeping personal narratives evoking loss, heartache, and newfound resilience. For the album’s duration, Jason Boland & the Stragglers offer a comparative range of hard times. In “Predestined”, lead vocalist Jason Boland croons, “Pain, my friend, is just your body talking/telling you to slow down for a while.” Likewise, the track “Hard Times Are Relative” features siblings struggling to survive after their parents’ death. The song’s narrative laments they “get by on a garden / And whatever we can kill / Darlene is all alone… / She’s seven years my younger / And I’m only seventeen.” The storytelling is reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s ruminations of her youth and family.

But the title track is not a knock-off of classic country tropes. Rather, “Hard Times Are Relative” proves Boland is a smart and engaging storyteller. Only after repeated listens did I realize I misunderstood the song’s narrative. Darlene, the younger sister, is not a victim of circumstance. She saves her older brother’s life and is an adept hunter. The track concludes with the siblings “stopp[ing] to dress the ten point buck / She had shot along the way.” With the song’s first-person narrative conveyed by Boland’s tenor, it’s easy to transfer androcentrism onto the lyrics. Assuming the brother is the victor and Darlene is a passive onlooker is wrong. I was so wrong. Actually, in writing this, there is no evidence to suggest the narrator is her brother at all! Darlene’s self-reliance endows the song with a feminist vibe so apparent, I am embarrassed I succumbed to gender norms.

Jason Boland & the Stragglers balance snark and celebration. “Dee Dee OD’ed” starts by critiquing EDM. The lyrics pointedly question whether tech support counts “as a valid claim to fame”. However, the commentary is a misdirection as the track is a tribute to the Ramones. In addition to the title’s focus on Dee Dee’s death, Joey’s, Johnny’s, and Tommy’s passing is lyrically expressed when Boland sings the “three of them died of cancer”. The track’s alliterative title audibly reiterates the thump of Dee Dee’s bass echoed by Boland’s electric guitar. Furthermore, the song pays homage to “Glad to See you Go” when Boland sings “go, go-go-go”. Here Jason Boland & the Stragglers reminds that their musical influences are wider than just classic country. We could go without the dig to EDM but everyone is entitled to their opinions.

Musically the album is upbeat, but the instrumentation often contrasts with the lyrics’ overt sense of melancholy. For example, “Right Where I Began” brandishes Nick Worley’s rampageous fiddle. Yet the lyrics exhibit the song’s narrator fueling his sadness with “Jack Daniels by the handle / My best buds in the can / Some wild ass turkey sitting next to me / Talking about the plan.” The contrast between the song’s music and lyrics works. Here Jason Boland & the Stragglers pull from classic country’s tendency to encourage dancing to unapologetic sadness. This dichotomy is country music’s foundation and central to Hard Times Are Relative.

The Stragglers are given opportunity to show off their musical aptitude. “Searching for You”, for example, is elementary in its lyrical construction but the track makes up for it with magnificent solos from Worley and Cody Angel’s pedal steel guitar. Worley’s mandolin is on show in the album’s opening track “I Don’t Deserve You”. “Going Going Gone” flaunts a twangy guitar that underscores the fervent fiddle then forms a musical triumvirate with Brad Rice’s steady drumbeat. The last sound on “Going Going Gone” is a slide guitar’s held phrase that lengthens the track’s strong instrumentation. Throughout the album, musical nuance is generated with the addition of a Wurlitzer electric piano, Hammond organ, accordion, and banjo.

There’s no flash or pomp to Hard Times Are Relative. This is straight roots country. Yet Jason Boland & the Stragglers’ style is more complicated than a collected bewailing of lost loves and challenges to emotional fortitude. Hard Times are Relative delivers the energy of the honky-tonk accentuated with the stories passed down from iconoclastic country music outlaws.

RATING 8 / 10