(Blind Nello Records)
Kevin Deal has already supplied the only thing that really needs to be said about his follow-up to last year's debut, Lovin' Shootin' Cryin' and Dyin'; the title of the disc tidily sums up the songs contained on it, from the "blessed old hymns" to "them sad old country songs" that sound comfortable on a bar stool or in a pew. Deal doles out both in the same young-old voice on loan from Mick Jagger that comes from too much time spent praying to God over the din of a roadhouse jukebox or praying for another beer during a sermon. Either way, it sounds as though Deal has lived through each of the dozen tales of West Texas boomtowns and repentant criminals on Honky Tonks-N-Churches, even if he probably hasn't. No doubt he owes more than a bit of a gratitude to his supporting players, among them producer Lloyd Maines (who's billed on the front cover, strangely), organ player Bukka Allen, Austin singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix, and Deal's son Steven on bass -- whom he thanks in the liner notes for playing with his pop "when he would rather be banging his head with buddies in his own band."
It's hard to picture the same man who politely dropped off a few copies of this album as the ex-con "out of his head on cocaine and speed" that narrates "The Man I Used to Be," or the drunk that can't control his desire to "Jump Off the Wagon." Yet Deal is much more convincing in those roles than he was as the gunfighters and Civil War veterans that populated Lovin' Shootin' Cryin' and Dyin'. While his first album seemed three decades old on arrival, Honky Tonks-N-Churches is almost modern in comparison; it's full of songs that don't dwell in the yellowed pages of history. Many of the characters spend their time looking back, but they're backward glances from here and now, the dusty pickup truck weaving in the passing lane rather than a horse-drawn carriage cutting through the Ozarks. It's classic country, meaning songs and stories that could happen anywhere at any time.
And the music meets the men that Deal sings about (as he's singing through them) halfway, sticking to guitar-bass-drums arrangements for the most part, only occasionally accompanied by the mandolins and dobros that appeared on Lovin' Shootin' Cryin' and Dyin'. In his current incarnation, Deal is not unlike what John Mellencamp might have sounded like had he not attempted to take his hick shtick onto the dance floor. "Boomtown" is a nothing if not a mature take on Mellencamp's "Pink Houses," not delivered by a kid itching to bust out, but a man who has seen his small-town life corrupted by people who came there "to get away, but they brought it with them." And that's why Honky Tonks-N-Churches succeeds where it's predecessor failed: Deal's singing sad songs you could be singing yourself.
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