Virginia-born fifth generation fiddler Clinton Gregory made a modest splash in the early 90s as an independent artist who nonetheless gained some airplay. His best remembered song is probably 1991’s top 30 hit ‘If It Weren’t For Country Music (I’d Go Crazy)’. It’s over 15 years since we have heard anything from him, so this unheralded release came out of the blue. He has found a new home on indie label Melody Roundup, which is basically a music publisher whose first CD release this is. The company’s catalog provides the songs, and luckily they are of a uniformly high standard.
Clinton’s sweet tenor and lovely fiddle playing are as good as ever, and his song selection is stellar, if leaning towards the downbeat. The production (by Gregory himself with publisher Jamie Creasy) is tasteful and restrained, with Clinton playing fiddle on eight of the twelve tracks.
‘Too Country For Nashville’ recalls the Nashville of the early 1980s, back when Randy Travis was “washing pots and pans”, when Clinton first came to town. He complains about the lack of any alternative destination for a country songwriter; after all,
You say I’m too country for Nashville
You could be right, these days that may be so
But if I’m too country for Nashville
Where in the hell would you like me to go?
Some may point out that he forgets the Texas option when dismissing the likes of New York, LA and Muscle Shoals as alternatives, but that would take away the point of the song.
A single earlier this year, ‘Bridges’, written by Gary Hannan and Marty Brown paints the picture of a selfish jerk whose woman is dealing with the fallout and having to apologize for his bad behaviour. The man is clearly not worth her self-sacrificial behaviour, and clearly she’s going to reach the end of her patience eventually:
Sometimes she hates how much she still loves him
He’s slowly burning bridges
Faster than she can build them
The playful ‘You Play Like Chet’ features Clinton’s acoustic guitar rather than his fiddle, as he relates the tongue-in-cheek tale of an encounter with an audience member in a noisy bar who may not be quite as enthusiastic as our protagonist believes. Also entertaining, if rather dated lyrically, the good humoured and catchy ‘If That Ain’t Jones’ is about writing the perfect hit song for George.
The heart of this record, though, is in the sad ballads.
The beautiful ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll’, penned by Clinton about a fading relationship, has a soaring chorus, as he demands to know,
Can you get over me?
Can I get over you?
Can two hearts really turn this cold?
Tell me, has love taken its toll?
Sinuous steel adds melancholy to ‘It Took Every Tear’, written by Jimmy Rinehart and Craig Martin. In the aftermath of his loved one leaving, Clinton shares his sadness with us while keeping it hidden from the one who has caused his pain:
When I swore it wouldn’t hurt, I was lying
It took every tear I had to keep from crying
New single ‘She Did’, written by Craig Martin alone, is even sadder, as the protagonist realizes all the material gifts he gave his beloved mean nothing now that she is gone:
They say you can’t take it with you
But they’re so wrong
She took everything that she loved
Now she’s so gone
She loved my heart
She cherished my soul
Now they’re all three together in a box in a hole
With the weight of the earth on the lid
They say you can’t take it with you
But she did
He is reduced to lying weeping on the ground beside her grave with her meaningless jewellery beside him. The lovely melody and restrained vocal keep this from exaggeration, and this is a highlight.
It fits very nicely with the following ‘Chase Away The Lonely’, another excellent song written by Jerry Salley and Amanda Martin. Here Clinton empathetically drinks away the pain of lost love:
Tonight you’ll reach for anything to hold on to
You kill a shot to kill the pain
Anything to get you through
When searching for salvation
Leads to desperation
You’ll do whatever it takes
To chase away the lonely
Hit another wall
Fall down on your knees
Pray for the strength to get back up
To find the hope you need
Until that moment come and you see the light
You raise a glass to one more day that you survive
Sinking deeper still in despair, the title track is an outstanding song written by Tony Ramey, Trey Matthews and Earl Clark on the somber subject of alcoholism. The narrator gets a wake-up call from a man further down the road than he is himself:
What’ll you do when too much ain’t enough,
When you can’t pass out and you can’t pick yourself up?
How do you face these lonely, lonely nights
Without one single piece of your mind?
And you’re out of luck
You had too much
And too much ain’t enough
In ‘You Smile’ Clinton has learned to put a braver face on his sorrow.
Clinton wrote one of the album’s two religious numbers, the meditative ‘Crucifixion’. The quietly confessional ‘The New’, which has a more contemporary feel, ends the album on a brighter note as it portrays the joy of rebirth after he ‘broke the chain’, and invites us to
Say goodbye to the old me
And hello to the new
This is a genuinely excellent album, and one of 2012’s most unexpected pleasures. It should appeal to fans of the best music of the early 90s, particularly those with a taste for slower sad songs.
Available digitally from CDBaby