Joe’s debut solo album was released on Epic in 1990, and immediately propelled him to stardom; overnight success (at the age of 32) which was thoroughly deserved, because this is an excellent album, and a fine exemplar of the neotraditional movement which all too briefly dominated the genre. It was produced by Bob Montgomery (then also working with Vern Gosdin) and Johnny Slate. They provided a sympathetic backing which showcased Joe’s vocal prowess.
The lead single ‘Home’ (written by Andy Spooner and Fred Lehner), which has the disillusioned protagonist looking wistfully back to his childhood, took Joe right to the top of the charts. It set records as the first ever debut single to hit #1 on all three of the major charts then in existence (Billboard, Radio & Records, and Gavin). The nostalgia feeds on the protagonist’s disillusionment about the dreams he has been pursuing:
The rainbows I’ve been chasing keep on fading before I find my pot of gold…
Now the miles I put behind me ain’t as hard as the miles that lay ahead
And it’s way too late to listen to the words of wisdom that my daddy said
The straight and narrow path he showed me turned into a thousand winding roads
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind I’m always going home
The pained ballad ‘If You Want Me To’ was almost as successful, reaching #2 in 1991, and is my personal favorite of the four singles from this project. One of Joe’s own songs (written with Larry Williams), it was the first showcase of the apparently effortless slide between registers which is Joe’s most remarkable gift as a vocalist, as the narrator gently tells his beloved he is prepared to do whatever she wants from him, even if:
If it takes good-bye to make you happy
Then I’ll just walk away if you want me to
‘If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)’, written by Kim Williams (Larry’s brother) and Ken Spooner, took Joe back to #1, with its witty western swing twist on being broke and too easily swayed by a persuasive car salesman. The optimistic final single was written by Joe with his friend and regular co-writer Lonnie Wilson (who also plays drums and sings backing vocals on the album), about finding a ‘New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)’. The only really happy song on the album, it was another #2 Billboard hit, and cemented Joe’s status as one of the brightest new stars of the early 90s.
Heartbreak also comes uptempo with the drinking-to-forget-the-heartbreak song ‘I Ain’t Leavin’ Til She’s Gone’ (written by Joe with Wayne Perry and Lonnie Wilson). Joe wails,
One drink’s too many
Ten ain’t enough
Lord, but she’s still here
So I’ll have one more
More western swing is on offer with the similarly themed ‘Liquid Heartache’, another of Joe’s songs, this one written with the veteran Red Lane, with a great groove which really lets the musicians stretch out.
The uptempo tracks are all great, but Joe is at his best and most memorable singing slow sad songs like Randy Boudreaux’s beautiful, downbeat ‘Coolest Fool In Town’ whose protagonist is determined not to let his ex thinks he still cares. The regret-filled emotion of ‘Stranger In My Eyes’, written by Max D Barnes, Joe Chambers and Larry Jenkins, is even better, a hidden gem which is my favorite of the non-singles and closes the album out on a high note artistically. The protagonist wishes he could start all over and do things right this time:
You’d never know the tears I made you cry
If I could be a stranger in your eyes
If you didn’t know me now
Like you didn’t know me then
You wouldn’t know you didn’t love me any more
I could hold you in my arms
Whisper things I never said
Love you like I never did before
Another standout ballad is ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’, a delicately delivered ballad reporting the social phenomenon of marital breakdown:
The house next door just came up for sale
She’s goin’ home to Mama
She says he can go to hell
The couple down the block are splittin’ up, I hear
They’re the third ones on our street this year
It’s just another day in Anytown, USA
Somebody’s hurt, somebody’s blue, somebody moves away
What little they do to make it work don’t seem to do much good
When love moves out, there goes the neighborhood
‘Almost Home’ is a tender tribute to an ageing father gradually fading away from life, contributed by co-producer Slate and Larry Williams. The pain of seeing him deteriorate, and the sadness at impending loss is leavened by the sense that
He’s almost home
Soon he’ll be with Mama
That’s where he belongs
Oh, how I’m gonna miss him when he’s gone
Many albums would have sequenced this song at the end, but here it finds a more prominent place as the first track on the second side on the vinyl/cassette version.
With four enormous hit singles, this really got Joe’s career off to a bright start. It is a great record from start to finish with no weak spots, and it was my favourite album of 1990. Sales were not quite as good as the singles’ radio success would suggest, but it was a promising start.
This is an essential purchase and as used copies are available incredibly cheaply. This is an unmissable bargain. And if you’ve been put off exploring Joe’s work by the novelty songs, don’t worry; there aren’t any here.