At 77 years-young Swamp Dogg’s (Jerry Williams Jr.) custom brand of psychedelic, swampy soul and R&B has carried him far and wide since the 1950s. His latest offering Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is drenched in all the above but pull away at the layers, and you’ll come to realize Swamp Dogg is decidedly country at the foundation. Sure, he loves his horns, we all do, but his country roots are showing on this record, and it’s glorious.
It’s an aesthetic he claims to have gotten from his grandfather, “My granddaddy, he just bought country records out the asshole,” Swamp remembers. “Every Friday when he came home from the Navy yard he’d stop off and get his records, like “Mule Train” by Frankie Laine, or “Riders in the Sky” by Vaughn Monroe.” His first time performing on stage was a country song at a talent show when he was six years old, Red Foley’s classic, “Peace in the Valley”.
You can’t fit Swamp Dogg into a box. He’s more country than most, more funk than the rest, and has more soul than all of them put together. On this new record, he’s laid down sad songs, love songs, songs about death, clairvoyant songs on all facets of the human condition in an emotive pocket that sucks you dry and reinvigorates in one fell swoop. Infectious rhythms, coupled with his silky, smooth delivery, lay the gravel for the record. Built upon by a dream-like backup band featuring Justin Vernon, Jenny Lewis, and key man, figuratively and literally, Derick Lee leading the band that was at times as large as 14 musicians.
The fiddle accents on “Family Pain” paint the song with a countrified lacquer that’s best described as Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” meets Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” in a battle for street corner supremacy in my mind’s eye. “Billy” is an absolute heartbreaker with an even sadder animated video that tallies itself in the beyond sad song category… tote a hankie. “I Lay Awake” is the quintessential touching ballad of love, longing for a lover who’s spending time with another, yet there’s still that fleeting chance that she may return. The minimalist backing track accentuates Dogg’s vulnerability. And, for the record, “A Good Song” is what the world needs, Swamp Dogg has been reuniting folks in one way or another for decades, here he shares his recipe.
On the subject of reuniting, the inimitable John Prine and Dogg catch up for two phenomenal numbers on the record. The first of which a succulent psych ballad in a dub vein called “Memories”, the second is just two battle-worn troubadours begging for another chance at this odd thing called life on “Please Let Me Go Round Again”. It’s a touching array of reflection between two real-life legends in a world gone mad, revisiting a song Dogg wrote in his 40s. He hadn’t seen Prine since the 1960s.
Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is Jerry Williams’ new version of Swamp Dogg, ripe with life lessons and travails. In the grand scheme of things, what is the difference between “genres” other than a way for the “man” to categorize something for sale. Easily boxed and wrapped pretty for the uninitiated. You can’t box Swamp Dogg, not now, not ever. Just have a listen to his version of “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)” made famous by the troubled and late Johnny Paycheck. Oh yeah, Swamp wrote that song with the indelible Gary U.S Bonds back in the 1970s. Tell me that ain’t country, and he’ll kick your ass.