My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Jason Boland & the Stragglers – ‘Rancho Alto’

Jason Boland is a singer-songwriter with a poet’s heart, and with his band the Stragglers, is one of the acts in the Texas Red Dirt movement most deeply rooted in country music. His latest album, released on APEX/Thirty Tigers, is not quite as strong as his last studio album, 2008′s Comal County Blue, but is still a good collection. Boland wrote almost all the material, and his songwriting is consistently impressive and substantial. The album was recorded in Austin with Lloyd Maines producing, although the artist’s work is clearly rooted in his home state of Oklahoma.

The best song here is the gripping ‘False Accuser’s Lament’, an intriguing reinterpretation of ‘Long Black Veil’ from the point of view of the witness who claimed the narrator of the original song was the killer. The tune is new, but there are enough lyrical nods to the Marijohn Wilkin/Danny Dill-penned country classic to make its origins obvious. Tormented nightly by guilt, he reveals that he was paid off (with ‘the price of a new plow’) by the banker husband of the woman who would have been the convicted man’s alibi. In this version he knew of his wife’s affair but couldn’t face it all coming out in public, effectively making the framed man’s sacrifice pointless. Our narrator admits bleakly,

Father please forgive me for I falsely testified
They had me swear upon the Bible and I lied

The pensive ‘Obsessed’ dwells on an intense but fated relationship. The almost-melancholy ‘Between 11 And 2’ shows us a pair of lost souls eventually finding one another in the dead hours of the night. Jason wrote it with Noah Jeffries, who also plays fiddle and mandolin. The same pair wrote ‘Pushing Luck’, a rockier number where a potentially interesting story of a resentful lawbreaker feels overwhelmed by too-heavy production, not helped by the relative lack of melody.

The waltz ‘Every Moment I’m Gone’ is a rather lovely declaration of love by an ageing rambler, perhaps a seafarer, for the one waiting at home, which has a very old folk feel to the lyrics. The atmospheric playing of pedal steel dominates on ‘Forever Together Again’ (written by Roger Ray, pedal steel and dobro player in the Stragglers), a warmhearted tribute to a cowboy bar room crowd.

‘Down Here In The Hole’ is a strong song about working in a coalmine with some memorable lines and prominent fiddle. I also like ‘Fences’ with its fiddle-led instrumentation and singing melody, and the brooding if sometimes obscure lyric lamenting, I think, the fate of Native Americans:

She was there for the taking, there were promises made
But smallpox and whiskey were a mighty bad trade

All I see now are fences
The cards turn a profit but the people are gone
Theses old holes in the highway are so brutal on bones
You don’t dance with who brought you, it’s a lonesome walk home

The attractive ‘Mary Ellen’s Greenhouse’ paints an affectionate picture about making music with old friends in a welcoming place, based on a rehearsal place of Boland’s youth.

There are a couple of external covers. Bob Childers wrote ‘Woody’s Road’, a tribute to Woody Guthrie, ‘a rambling friend of man’. Finally, The part-spoken ‘Farmer’s Luck’ (written by Greg Jacobs) is another real highlight. It tells the story of a government-funded reservoir in Oklahoma which drowns a farmer’s land in the 1960s, set to a jaunty rhythm as the narrator’s grandfather, a small farmer complains to the bureaucrats and businessmen,

Well, you don’t know nothing about farming
You don’t know nothing about soil
You live up there in Tulsa and make your living off of oil…

They’re gonna dam the Deep Fork River and damn the farmer’s luck

This is an interesting and worthwhile release by an excellent songwriter.

Grade: A-

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