Singer-songwriter Billy Yates kickstarted his career by writing ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’ for his hero George Jones, and Jones later cover of Yates’ ‘Choices’ provided the great man’s last solo top 30 hit. Understandably, then, the shadow of the late George Jones looms large over Billy’s latest album, from the titular tribute to the “king of country soul” (which is heartfelt but not particularly insightful), to a closing version of ‘Choices’ featuring a cameo from Jones. Incidentally, the album was recorded, and dedicated to George, before his death.
The playfully vivacious semi-novelty story song ‘The House That Jack Built’ (written with Jerry Salley) is the kind of thing Jones would have cut in the 60s. It’s highly entertaining and a genuinely feelgood number, with Salley and Rebecca Lynn Howard adding harmony vocals. Another Salley co-write, the midtempo love song ‘Till The Old Wears Off’ features a Jones-style growl on the low notes, although the song itself is less memorable.
Elsewhere, the album is packed with classic sounding sad country songs, loaded with steel guitar. In ‘I Learned A Lot’, a chastened Billy claims that neglecting and losing his first love taught him how to treat a future love interest. Billy laments that his loved one still loves ‘The Man I Used To Be’, before he started cheating on her.
The appropriately titled ‘Sad Songs’ (written with Jamie Teachenor) is one of my favorites. Billy recalls listening to great country songs about broken hearts (another chance to namecheck Jones, along with Lefty Frizzell), before he understood heartbreak from personal experience. Now, though, his lover has left and:
I understand how it kills a man
When his world just walked out the door
Those lonesome refrains just add to the pain
No, I don’t buy the sad songs no more
I’m still not entirely sure (even after multiple listens) whether ‘As I Kiss My World Goodbye’ is positively suicidal about a breakup, or about actually dying. The least traditional country song on the record ‘That’s Your Memory On My Mind’ is a soulful acoustic ballad set to a piano backing; it is well done although less to my taste stylistically than the rest of the album.
The gentle retrospective ‘It Wasn’t That Funny’ looks back at the ups and downs of a relationship, as he and his spouse can laugh now at past arguments and near-breakups.
Another fine song is the piano-led ‘The Father And The Son’, written with Tom Douglas. The gripping story song shows us a young mother (revealed in the last verse to be the narrator’s mother), daughter of a preacher, struggling with her mental demons and the loss of faith for the survival of her teenage marriage:
The devil on one shoulder says “go back to your youth”
While the angel on the other is whispering the truth
There are four good reasons not to run
The father and a son
And the Father and the Son
The gently philosophical ‘The Shoulder’ written with Casey Beathard recounts a tale of a young man who inevitably falls by the wayside after growing up in a narrow small-town atmosphere, but eventually finds salvation:
I guess it goes to show God blesses even those
On the shoulder of the straight and narrow road
When enough is enough and you turn yourself around
And you pick yourself up just to fall back down
Can’t stay on top
Won’t stay in the ditch
And the best you can do is pray you’ll hitch
A ride on someone’s prayers to where you want to go
The cheerful ‘I’m A One Man Band’ picks up the tempo and sings the praises of monogamy. The driving ‘Chill My Beer’, written with Byron Hill, offers an ironic dig at a cold-hearted woman; the lyric isn’t bad, but the melody is confined to about four notes, which make it one of the record’s less successful moments.
A generous 16-strong tracklisting allows for some filler, which appears in the shape of ‘A Country Boy Just Don’t Care’, which is an okay song about being true to oneself, and ‘She Ain’t Got Nobody’ is a cliche’d song about an attractive single woman in a bar.
This is Billy’s strongest set of material for some time. production values are excellent, and this is a solidly country record worthy of being inspired by Jones.