Louisiana paramedic James Dupre has become something of a youtube phenomenon with his covers of country classics. He has now managed to use that exposure to record an album in Nashville, produced by Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas (who also contributes dobro and lap steel), with a fine set of musicians and some well-chosen songs, mostly from Nashville songwriters. Most are set to a broadly similar slowish-mid-tempo, with a laid back feel. James has a warm voice with a pleasing tone and relaxed style with phrasing which is often reminiscent of Alan Jackson or Don Williams.
The outstanding song is the melancholy ‘Ring On The Bar’, written by Byron Hill and Brent Baxter, a beautifully constructed lyric set to a beautiful, gentle melody, about the aftermath of a failed marriage which opens the set. The title hook refers in the opening verse to the watermark left by the protagonist’s beer as he thinks over his situation, and later to the wedding ring he abandons there:
There’s a ring on the bar
One that’s shiny and gold
The symbol of a promise
And the heart that he broke
It’s the one thing she left
When she packed up the car
It was light on her finger
Now it’s heavy on his heart
And the ring shines bright in the colored light
Of a lonesome neon star
When its closing time he’ll leave the hurt behind
With a tip in the jar and the ring on the bar
That bartender’s gonna think someone forgot it
And he’ll wonder who could be that big a fool
Another fine song on the theme of a man struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship is ‘Alright Tonight’, written by Tom Douglas and Casey Beathard:
I can’t stand to think of you with anybody else
There ain’t a bottle or a bar so far that seems to help
Today was not a good day to convince myself that I’m alright
Hey but I’m alright tonight
I guess I really should have called before
I showed up drunk at your front door
I had to see with my own eyes
That you’re alright tonight
Perfectly understated in its conflicting emotions, we really don’t believe him when he says that he’s “alright”, tonight or at any other time.
‘Drive’, written by Roger Ferris, is a nice low-key account of someone leaving some situation (never clearly stated) where James’s phrasing is particularly reminiscent of Alan Jackson, and with some nice fiddle making it another favourite of mine.
Got a tank of unleaded. a case of hard headed pride
Got my map unfolded right by my side
Large coffee to go is my new best friend
But I’ve learned all things come to an end
So I drive
No destination just a conversation with the wheel
We just decided that I can’t keep denying what I really feel
Never intended to write this ending tonight
But this wheel has got a hold of me tight
So I drive
We don’t know where he’s headed or what he’s running from; it hardly seems to matter. The journey is the focus here.
A number of covers are included, but thankful none is over-familiar. The reflective Bob McDill/Dickey Lee/Kenneth Jones song ‘Knee Deep In A River’ is a cover of an old Don Williams cut which was a top 20 hit in the early 90s for Kathy Mattea. It reflects on the unregarded loss over time of friends and lovers, allowed to “slip away”, and on a deeper level the denial of intimacy:
They roll by just like water
And I guess we never learn
We go through life parched and empty
Standing knee deep in a river and dying of thirst
The rather charming ‘I’m Good’, written by Marty Dodson and Mark Nesler, marks a change of pace as one of the more up-tempo songs and one of the most commercial moments here. It was previously recorded by former American Idol contestant Bucky Covington, with James’ s version a little more low-key. It has a neat little double meaning as the bad-boy protagonist tries prayer now he’s fallen in love with a religious girl.
I got my eye on the deacon’s daughter
But I’m diesel fuel and she’s holy water
She don’t like boys that drink cuss and chew
That’s why I’m here, Lord, calling on you
I know I ain’t been living like I ought to
But Lord I swear that she could make me want to
It may be asking you for more than I should
But just give me this girl and I’m good
The other covers are 1970s melodic acoustic pop/rock songs with a countryish element: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ (written by John Fogerty) and Jackson Browne’s ‘For A Dancer’. They fit in surprisingly well on this set. A little more up-tempo is the bluesy groove of Walt Aldridge and John Jarrard’s ‘Deep Down’ (credited here to Walt Aldridge and John Jarrard but oddly enough, definitely not the same writers’ song of that name which was a top 10 hit for Pam Tillis in 1995) which has a swampy feel and is my least favourite track.
The most unusual song is the eccentric and allusive ‘Postcard From Elvis, written by Michael Dann Ehmig, Michael Smotherman, with its imagined happy alternative lives for Elvis (working in a cafe in Guam), Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy (living on a farm together with a young family), and James Dean (driving fast cars in Hollywood).
The set closes with two of James’s own compositions, both with a nostalgic element. The warm ‘Memories Of Heaven’ recalls a little wistfully a relationship a few years in the past, and ‘A Hero In My Eyes’ is a sincere tribute to a beloved younger brother. Both are pretty good songs.
This is a fine album from an unexpected source, which I’m enjoying more every time I listen to it.
Available from all the usual places (Amazon, iTunes, CDBaby).