Richie Allbright’s vocal is enough to make one think that somewhere way back in the day Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe had a bastard love child. Forget the ways the biology doesn’t work. Just stop and listen to that weathered, wizened, wise and wistful sound. Richie sings and all the very best of the legends whose songs touched our souls the deepest lives vibrant and full and young again. You haven’t heard this sort of power and pathos on the radio in literally decades. You haven’t ever heard it at all if you haven’t done your homework and researched the hidden byways of country music’s most visceral moments. But if that’s the case, you’re going to be awful glad you hear it now. And if you do remember David Allan singing Mickey Newbury or Haggard singing himself or maybe Nat Stuckey and Ed Bruce now and again, then your gut’s already sizzling a little in anticipation of what you’re in for here.
Allbright’s been around. And down. Down a lot. The kind of down that Johnny Cash used to be, in fact. Lot of detritus in the rear view; busted up marriages, busted up bottles, busted up life in general. Given his talent, truth is Allbright should be more nearly a well known talent in the Dale Watson vein. One gets the sense he knows it, manages to recognize and deal with the hard truth without beating himself into submission over it. There’s that thread of bareknuckle self judged honesty running through the track list here that only comes when a man’s come back to terms with the man in the mirror. You can’t fake this stuff, you can’t make it up, and you can’t write or sing it based solely on informed observations of the battered lives of those whose crazy paths crisscross your trail. Least you can’t if you want anybody to believe a word you let loose.
Allbright’s paid some dues and found a way to turn the leftover nickels into things that shine. That’s the sort of music that can give the rest of us hope while it moves our boots toward a sawdust floor with a partner who knows the steps just fine. The stuff that makes a tack room feel like a monument to a haunted jukebox, that turns sunset into a theater of the spirit and the mind.
Ten tracks here, half written by Allbright (one a co-write with buddy Jarrod Birmingham) and half from some rather luminous lights in the songwriting sky. The Haggard and Leona Williams penned “I Can’t Break the Habit” is an early standout, and the treatment here of Billy Don Burns’ “Down Her Memory Lane” will raise the hairs on your neck every time it spins. As with many of Billy Don’s songs, it’s stunningly beautiful in spite of its inherent heartache. Wrapped in Richie’s achingly weathered vocal, it’s flat out transcendent. Don’t recall a lyric and a vocal so perfectly fitted since Brian Burns recorded “Angels and Outlaws.” This is akin to Waylon singing “MacArthur Park” or Merle with “If We Make It Through December.” Jaw dropping stuff. “Where The Rainbow Hits The Ground” runs in similar territory:
Now there’s a pawn shop down on Broadway
Its window full of broken dreams
There you’ll find his dusty guitar
But there’s no magic in those strings
He’s not the first or last to follow
That yellow brick road into town
Sometimes gold and sometimes sorrow
Where the rainbow hits the ground
When he’s not wringing your heart dry with timeless interpretations of other writers’ songs, Allbright’s got a way of unleashing his own observations in a manner you’re not going to expect. Perhaps in some ways the most striking cut here is an original titled “Gravedigger.” Borne on an appropriately haunted carriage drawn by ghostly pedal steel and fiddle, it’s a song that will not let go. No one thinks of the ones behind the scenes, the thankless souls whose unseen work greases the skids of our lives. No one but Allbright, apparently.
He pulls a backhoe down the gravel road beside my house
Gets out and shakes his head, stares down at the ground
He thinks ‘I must have the biggest dead end job in this town
But if it weren’t for me they’d all be digging their own holes
To lay their loved ones down’
Ouch. Who thinks of these things? Hell, who stops and notices, actually sees the gravedigger anymore? We used to have to dig the holes ourselves, our ancestors buried their loved ones and their enemies alike. Now someone else bears that load, spends a life reading the same page in the local paper every morning to see what his work day looks like. Spends his days getting familiar with and accustomed to the place he’ll see himself at the end of the line. Maybe none of us know what effect that has on his life, his family if he has one. Certainly most of us never notice or stop to think. Richie does, though.
Hardworn wisdom. Unusual observations possessed of an insight that lives deep between the lines. Stunningly good translations of songs the masters wrote and sang. All of that is Allbright. And so is a whole lot more. No fan of genuine country music on the planet should lack this record in their collection.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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