Tommy Webb is a bluegrass singer who has just released his third album, and his first on the larger independent label Rural Rhythm, which should lead to a higher profile for him.
I think it shows a definite advance over both his 2007 debut album, Eastern Kentucky, and last year’s follow-up, Now That You Are Gone, both of which were released on the smaller Kindred Records. Like those predecessors, the new album features playing entirely by Tommy’s regular band, augmented by producer Ron Stewart on fiddle/mandolin/anything else required. The recording sessions took place at the delightfully named Sleepy Valley Barn studio in Tommy’s home state of Kentucky, and the whole project has a very authentic, organic feel. Tommy hails from Langley, Kentucky, and is clearly steeped in bluegrass traditions. I wouldn’t put him in the top rank of male bluegrass vocalists, but he is firmly in the high lonesome tradition and sings with real feeling for the lyrics. The material he has gathered for this album is very high quality, with a strong overlap with country music, although the treatment is firmly bluegrass.
Two of the tracks are re-recorded versions of songs which appeared on Tommy’s previous releases, which the label probably felt deserved wider attention. The more interesting of these songs is ‘If It Weren’t For Bluegrass Music (I’d Go Crazy)’, a re-write of Clinton Gregory’s minor country hit from 1991, ‘If It Weren’t For Country Music (I’d Go Crazy)’. Tommy gives himself a co-writing credit for altering the allusions from country artists to bluegrass ones, for instance declaring, ‘I’d vote for Ralph Stanley for president’ where the original picks Merle Haggard. The changes work pretty well, although the hook line sounds a little awkward – surely most people normally refer just to “bluegrass” rather than to “bluegrass music” as a rule?
The other retread is a cover of Ricky Skaggs’ farmer’s lament ‘Hard Row To Hoe’. The song is twenty years old, but has gained a new relevance in today’s straitened times. Tommy is obviously a Skaggs fan as he also covered ‘Lonesome For You’ on Eastern Kentucky, and the new album includes a version of Wayland Patton’s beautiful ‘Something In My Heart’, a big country hit for Ricky in 1984. Tommy is not as good a singer as Skaggs, but he does commit everything to the lyrics, sounding suitably impassioned on ‘Hard Row To Hoe’ and emotional on ‘Something In My Heart’, which is well suited to his plaintive delivery.
He bravely tackles one of George Jones’ classics in Bobby Braddock’s ironic ‘She Told Me So’. While one needs to cast aside all thoughts of the unsurpassable original, Tommy does manage to make the song sound as if it was originally a bluegrass song. The most curious choice of cover was Darryl Worley’s ‘Good Day To Run’, but this turns out to be one of the most inspired song choices, as it works surprisingly well done bluegrass style, and I actually prefer it to the original.
Tommy is a very talented songwriter in his own right, composing several tracks here, mainly by himself. The exception is the title track, written with record label president Sam Passamano as an appeal to the President not to let ‘the heartland become a barren wasteland’ in the current economic climate.
Of his solo compositions, I really like the lost love lament, ‘What You Weren’t Thinking Of’, which could be covered by a traditionally-oriented straight country artist, as the protagonist complains to the girl who led him to believe it was true love: “Why did you let me think what you weren’t thinkin’ of?” Competent but less memorable are the love song ‘Everything You Do’ and the religious ‘Fall Upon Him’.
Bluegrass musician Pete Goble, whose cousin is Tommy’s banjo player, contributes the intense wailing lament ‘No Room Inside Your Heart’, as the protagonist is hopelessly in love with a woman too badly hurt by a previous relationship to let love into her heart “filled too much with pain”.
One of the best of the outside songs, and perhaps the best vocal performance on the album, is the opening track, the dramatic story song ‘Teardrop Inn’, written by Mike Wells. I was engrossed by the tragic tale of a cheating West Virginia miner whose suspicious wife takes matters into her own hands:
“She cries, ‘Bobby, I’ll always love you,
I would have stood by you til the end
But I’d rather see a cold stone above you
Than in the arms of Tina at the Teardrop Inn’
She said, ‘Say your prayers and have yourself a cold one,
Watch this Smith & Wesson shakin’ in my hand
There won’t be no cold Budweisers where you’re going
There’ll be no Teardrop Inn.'”
Another murder story is related in the pacy traditional song ‘Little Sadie’, narrated by the killer. The tune is weirdly cheery and somewhat incongruous with the dark lyric. Tommy and his bandmates offer some traditional bluegrass gospel harmonies on the enjoyable ‘River Of Jordan’, and the album closes out with an instrumental piece composed by Carter Stanley (‘Clinch Mountain Backstep’).
Heartland is widely available, at Amazon, iTunes, and even some WalMart stores. The previous albums can be obtained via Tommy’s website or at CDBaby.