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Never Look Back
Brian Houser

Music-scene regulars were whispering about Never Look Back, Brian Houser's debut, long before the album was even finished. Houser, a regular at Adair's when he's not fixing Six Flags roller coasters, was the future of country music, they said, even though he was mining the past, looking to Waylon, Willie, and the boys for inspiration. Maybe so many people perceived the 39-year-old Houser as a savior because he's old enough to remember when country music was more than just bland '70s pop with fiddles and pedal steel guitars tacked on for a bit of, uh, authenticity. He recalls a time before Nashville became a city full of hat racks with guitars and girls who look real purdy in second-skin jeans and sparkling halter tops (never look back, indeed). He also knows that nothing can save Nashville and its music, which has all the rebelliousness of a Methodist minister.

But that doesn't keep him from trying. Backed by an all-star cast--including Mitch Marine (formerly of Tripping Daisy and Brave Combo) on bass and drums, Andy Timmons on guitar, Sara Hickman on vocals--Houser deftly combines melancholy, tears-in-my-beer laments ("River Run Dry") and boot-scootin' rave-ups ("Tryin' Hard"). The result is an album that won't save country music, but it might make people remember why they liked it in the first place, especially when Houser and Hickman team up on the Lynn Anderson classic "Rose Garden." The rendition is stunning, as Milo Deering's weeping pedal steel and a delicately strummed acoustic guitar nudge along the duo's sweet-and-sour vocals. "Santa Fe Trail" is even better, adding the "western" back to country, boosted by Marine's knee-slapping beat and Hickman's breathy vocals.

At times, Never Look Back gets bogged down in cliche, particularly in the lyric sheet. Too often his words ("I been bloodshot on tequila / I been gutshot on the whiskey and the rye," off "Tryin' Hard") seem torn straight from a country-music primer. But Houser sings the lyrics with such conviction, he makes you forget you've heard the same thing a million times before--then again, nobody ever got rich in country doing something brand-new, at least not since Hank Williams died for your sins. He also uses his crack band ably, leaning on it when the song isn't good enough: "Long Lost Woman" would be nothing without Deering's weepy fiddle and Timmons' guitar. And when the song is good enough, the band's even better. "The Dog is Mine"--with its "Keep the bitch / But the dog is mine" chorus--could have been a novelty throwaway, just this side of Ray Stevens filler, but Houser and the boys manage to two-step around could-be, should-be parody. The band pounds out a juke-joint rhythm, while Houser's one-more-for-the-road voice maintains the friendly, fuck-you tone of a small-town sheriff. Houser's proof enough that country music stopped being good about 20 years ago.

--Zac Crain


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