Out Here

The realest Deal

Lovin' Shootin' Cryin' and Dyin'
Kevin Deal
Blind Nello Records

Country music has long forgotten its roots; today's music is no older than yesterday's; and last week is damned near ancient history for the hillbilly millionaires of tomorrow. Those fetishists left in the audience who crave a little soul wrapped around a twang are stuck only with dirt-broke cult heroes and burned-out legends; even better if they spent a little time in rehab, in jail or, better still, in a coffin. Townes died for their sins, while Ray Wylie and Jimmie Dale wept.

Kevin Deal, a Plano boy with a little Lubbock soul who sounds not a little like Mick Jagger singing Steve Earle songs, is doomed for such status if he keeps this up. He's the latest in a fine line of singer-songwriters who's most of all a storyteller who fancies himself a songpoet at that, and not without good reason. If anything, he's Joe Ely unburdened by legend or Butch Hancock without the Dust Bowl Dylan getup--the voice ain't pretty, the stories ain't either, and that's precisely the point.

It'd be easy to label Lovin' Shootin' Cryin' and Dyin', recorded at Austin's Cedar Creek with Ely compadre Lloyd Mains producing, an important debut. It's loaded with the kind of material The Band used to sing three decades ago--songs set in the backwoods of Civil War-torn Arkansas, songs about young boys who get mixed up with grizzled gunslingers, songs about railroad-working, WWII-serving grandfathers felled by whiskey and pain. Then comes the 37-second "Amazing Grace" transition, performed by Deal on a lonesome harmonica that fades out before it kicks in. Throw in the old-school instrumentation, the mandolins and washboards and accordions that ground Lovin' Shootin' in backward-looking homage, and you've got a record made up on Cedar Creek, and it sends me often enough to know Deal may not be capital-I important, but at least someone worth listening to once or three times.

But the tall tales aren't the killers here, especially "Sleep at Night," with Ray Wylie Hubbard showing up as the gunfighter who warns Deal's young gun about staying out of trouble; it's essentially a remake of Unforgiven (as in, "The kin of the ones you kill and the law/They can both be mighty unforgivin'"), but with a happy, hug-the-wife-n-kids-for-me ending. It's the small tales that play better, the songs about dead relationships, not dead men, that pack more sting. The man and woman, whose love collides "Head On" until it shatters into a million pieces, rings far more honest than "Walk Away," about a Huntsville prisoner who realizes "you can never take it back when the bullets left the gun"; and the veiled threat of "Dark Side of the Blues" is far more tangible than the real danger of "Vengeance." Deal writes like a demon, sings like hell, and is smart enough not to laugh at his own jokes ("Back Door No More")--he fits right in after all, one more miscreant misfit who saves his best, saddest stories for last call.

--Robert Wilonsky


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