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Heybale! - The Last Country Album Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
ImageLet’s say you’re a big fan of the-real-deal country music, and you decide to get busy on eBay and you score big. You find and successfully bid on a pair of black socks worn by Johnny Cash, a postcard mailed from El Paso by Marty Robbins, a rose sent from San Antonio by Bob Wills, a can of hair spray used by Tammy Wynette, an empty pill bottle with Hank Williams’ name on the label, an empty white lightnin’ bottle with no label but with George Jones’ fingerprints all over it, Buck Owens’ red-white-and-blue belt buckle, Dolly Parton’s bra, Patsy Cline’s plane ticket, a joint rolled by Merle Haggard, half a joint smoked in Muskogee OK by Willie Nelson, a shower curtain from Ernest Tubb’s bathroom and a book on public speaking from Mel Tillis’ library. Why, you’d have yourself a veritable museum of style of classic country music.

Or, you could go Heybale and get yourself a copy of their new disc The Last Country Album, and you’d have a collector’s piece you could two-step to, and by golly if you found yourself in Austin on a Sunday you could even mosey on over to the Continental Club where they’ve been playing Sunday nights for-ever and hear them live, not artifacts of a bygone era but here and now, playing country music and singing like you just don’t hear it anymore.

That’s what I did, kind of by accident, at the tail end of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in ’06. I had just heard 50-some bands in three days, unknowns and very well knowns, a few boring, pretentious or just forgettable but most excellent and some downright amazing, of a wide assortment of genres. But probably none made the impression on me that these guys did. Exhausted from the 15-hour-a-day musical endurance mission accompanied by withering heat in an unshaded park, by past-midnight Sunday I couldn’t believe I was dragging myself over to the Continental. But my hot rod buddy in Silverlake was good friends with Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer and urged me to stop by and say hello, and when I did the night before I was treated to a grin-inducingly stellar set by Alejandro Escovedo. I already knew the Continental to have a great reputation, so even though the billing for  “Heybale! featuring Redd Volkaert and Earl Poole Ball” seemed so far into the cornfield it might be deadly, I took a chance. I will never forget entering and slowly making my way through a packed crowd to the stage, and without being able to yet see the band, after about 10 seconds snapping to attention as an electric charge crackled from my ears to my brain and all notions of exhaustion were crowded out by, What the… hell-l-l-l is this? This – is country music. This is Real Country Music, like I haven’t heard in person for way too many years – decades?

There’s a good chance you’ll have a similar response to Heybale’s aptly named The Last Country Album. I’m sure my reaction to first hearing them live was similar to what so many of their fans must have recounted to them that it seemed like a good choice for a title, but it still takes some bull-sized testicles to introduce yourselves to the world outside Austin that-a-way. What are you saying, dudes?

Hopefully, not that this is their last country album, because it’s more-or-less their first, and I hope the first of many. They have two previous releases, available outside Austin only at their web site, Live from 1-A (2-2-03) and ContinentaLIVE. I haven’t heard the latter, but their first one, recorded on-air at legendary country station KUT-FM, I enthusiastically reviewed here. I loved it so much, I had definite trepidation about this long-planned studio album.

Maybe because for me 1-A was a souvenir of my virgin Heybale experience, there are still ways in which I favor it. For whatever reasons, some of the vocals on 1-A blow away anything on The LCA. But the big question mark for me was their songwriting ability. Sure, they could knock out beloved Lefty and Merle songs, Harlan Howard and Tillis and Tom T. Hall, and it sounded familiar and skilled, but oftentimes great cover bands do covers because they really can’t write a decent original song.

I’m happy to report Heybale not only plays incredibly old school and incredibly well, they write the same way. Instant classics that sound like old friends the first time you hear them. Cheatin’ songs, drinkin’ songs, travelin’ songs, honky tonk songs. Seven of the 12 here came from HB’s three great vocalists, Volkaert, Ball and “new kid” Gary Claxton. Plus one instrumental named for the band by local legend fiddler-mandolinist Erik Hokkanen, one of the stellar “Orchestra” sidemen on this disc. (Others include the ubiquitous Cindy Cashdollar on steel and dobro, whom I saw accompany Van Morrison on pedal steel at the ACL Fest and has also played for Dylan, Asleep at the Wheel, Leon Redbone, Daniel Lanois; Elana James on tasty fiddle; and Casper Rawls on acoustic guitars, plus a handful of others on accordion, horns, acoustic bajo and more. But make no mistake, despite all the help, The Last Country Album is pure Heybale, just a little more full and punctuated.)

Redd Volkaert (one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard in my life – period) only co-wrote “California Wine,” but his earthshaking basso profundo voice is not to be forgotten, stamped on Willie Nelson’s “Record Man,” Faron Young’s “Step Aside” and Bob Wills’ “Hang Your Head in Shame.” Listen early on in the first number, where he rips off 31 notes where most players would settle for four to seven. Redd’s years with Haggard are ingrained in his singing style.

The rest of the original songwriting is split between rhythm guitarist Claxton and piano man Ball. Ball tends to write lighter, more novelty numbers (“Livin’ in a Cheap Motel,” “Everything… About Drinking,” “Honky Tonk Mood,” “Let’s Go to Mexico”) and sing them that way, but hear Heybale live or put on 1-A to remind yourself how powerful a singer he can be. A resume with Merle, Buck, the Byrds and 20 years with Johnny cash tells you all you need to know about his country soul. His playing is classic, a standard for others to live up to.

Drummer Tom Lewis (who also exec produced the album) came through Junior Brown, Connie Smith and the Wagoneers, and stand-up bassist Kevin Smith claims Dale Watson, Brian Setzer and High Noon. Claxton doesn’t have that kind of resumé, just one of the sweetest country croons since Jim Reeves, and his addition to an already embarrassingly-talented lineup was key. He’s now the go-to vocalist, with the impeccable instincts and chops that give them instant big-time cred, with Earl and Redd adding the vocal variety, integrity and talent that makes you shake your head, grin and wonder what’s coming next.

Take away the covers and “Mexico” that he co-wrote with Ball, and that leaves the opener “Guess Where I’ll Be This Morning” and “House of Secrets” as Claxton’s only solo writing contributions. But throw in “California Wine” that he co-wrote with Volkaert, and you’ve got all the   evidence you need that Claxton is a writing talent to be reckoned with. Heybale should always knock us dead with their somewhat obscure but always estimable archetypal covers – it’s their calling card – but they also need to lock Claxton in a room somewhere and not let him out til he’s got a dozen more like those three.

If this band, playing and singing his songs, had been around 30 or 40 years ago, you’d be reading about them in country music anthologies, right alongside the greats, and some dedicated band in Austin today would be covering them.

Definitely adequate, unblemished if not stellar, a thoroughly professional mix (by ex-Maverick Raul Malo, and Evan York) and recording, as good as you’d get from any major label. You can hear the slap of Smith’s bass, you can pick out every beat or fill from Lewis’ drums no matter how much he plays with the dynamics (and he does), you can distinguish the steel and the dobro from the guitar when they’re chasing each other on runs, you can catch all the little important stuff (a piano trill, some tambourine, an accordion or fiddle accent) buried way in the background but meant to be heard. It’s the next best thing to being at the Continental on a Sunday night.

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