Back in 1995, Wesley Dennis was a bright new hope for country music. Signed to Mercury Records, he got exposure opening shows for Alan Jackson, but never quite broke through himself. His closest to a hit single was the excellent ‘I Don’t Know (But I’ve Been Told)’, which peaked at a disappointing #46, and after the release of three singles and one album, Wesley went home to Alabama. He may not have achieved commercial success, but I was a big fan of his music, and disappointed that he subsequently disappeared into obscurity. A couple of years ago, I named him in my list of “the ones who got away” – artists who seemed to be on the road to stardom but who never made it as far as they deserved.
So I was thrilled to find that after 17 years, he was recording again. His rich voice and fine interpretative skills have not diminished with time. The material on his new record is generally high quality, with half of it written by the artist (with no need for assitsance from elsewhere). It is solidly traditional honky tonk country which should appeal to anyone lamenting the state of the music today, tastefully produced by Greg Cole.
Wesley wrote six new songs for this project. The title track is a fiddle-led critique of modern radio which should strike a chord with many listeners:
I used to listen to the radio
But now I don’t
It sounds too much like rock and roll
No matter what is on
I can call up my local station to request “Faded Love”
They tell me, “That’s too country”
Well, you ain’t country enough
He then harks back to the disappointment of losing his record deal:
I figured things were going well
Until that telephone rang
They said, “We don’t know how to promote you
So we’re gonna give you up
The fact is you’re just way too country”
Son, you ain’t country enough
I spend a lot of my time hoping
Someday that sound will come back
In the meantime I’ll keep playing
My old cassettes and my old 8-tracks
Can’t help but voice my own opinion
I love what I love
Even this song that I am singing
It ain’t country enough
A classic Vern Gosdin style heartbreak ballad, ‘A Month Of Sundays’ dwells on the difficulty in getting over someone who has left, and is probably the best of Wesley’s new compositions. ‘Sun, Surf, And the Sand (And My Ties)’ is slightly awkwardly phrased but shows how to make a beach setting work for a country song – have the protagonist crying over his lost love while observing happiness all around, making his own sadness, “so far from paradise”, all the more poignant.
In a more positive mood, ‘You’ is a pretty romantic ballad, clearly inspired by Wesley’s wife Jan, and which I like a lot. ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, a sardonic kissoff to an ex who has come crawling back, is quite entertaining. The playful ‘Ring that Belle’ is more fillerish but not bad.
Wesley pays tribute to his influences by including a handful of classic covers. The best of these is a very fine version of the Keith Whitley hit ‘Lady’s Choice’, a gorgeous heartbreaker written by Bill and Sharon Rice. It’s not quite up to Whitley’s sublime version, but that is a very high bar, and Wesley’s version is very good indeed. He duets with Canadian traditionalist Brian Mallery on ‘Brotherly Love’, a sentimental fraternal hit for Whitley with Earl Thomas Conley. A more obscure choice is ‘Final Touches’, which was the title track of Conway Twitty’s final album; it’s not my favorite track, but makes a nice change of pace.
‘Lovin’ On Back Streets’ is done as a duet with Wesley’s mother; a cheating song is a curious choice for singing with a family member, and Mrs Dennis’s voice shows the signs of age in its tone and timbre, but she can hold a tune well enough, and shows some nice phrasing. It is such a great song it is always worth hearing in any case. Mrs Dennis also gets one solo, on another classic, ‘When A Tingle Becomes A Chill’, which has some lovely steel and fiddle.
The album closes with revamped versions of Wesley’s three Mercury singles – ‘I Don’t Know (But I’ve Been Told’, the guilt-filled cheating song ‘Don’t Make Me Feel At Home’ and ‘Who’s Countin’’ – all excellent songs which sound as good here as they did on Wesley’s debut.
This is an extremely welcome return for an artist, and one I’ve been waiting for ever since he left Mercury.
Listen to the album and order a copy from Wesley’s website.