Leroy Virgil is one of the best songwriters in all of country music right now, and the 2010 album from his band Hellbound Glory called Old Highs and New Lows was good enough to get attention from mainstream news outlets, along with being named Saving Country Music’s 2010 Album of the Year.
Old Highs and Hellbound came into my music world at the same time, so attention for their first major release from 2008, Scumbag Country, got pushed aside for the more up-to-date project. But having recently seen the band at South by Southwest, and experiencing them Live From The Cracker Swamp, it spurned me to go back and really delve into the recorded versions of these songs they were kicking ass with in concert. And I dare say, as much as I’ve showered Old Highs with praise, Scumbag Country might even be better, or at least just as good, which still means it’s grade A, legendary material.
They say you have your whole life to write your first album. That must mean Leroy Virgil can write a lifetime’s worth of good songs in a year. A great album must have hits, and it must be solid throughout. It must be fun to listen to, but also hit you deep and be done with soul. It must have some spice: a degree of diversity to keep each song fresh to the ear and impactful to the mind. And to be a great album, not just good, it must be truly original, and when you dig deep in it, convey a theme. With Scumbag Country, it is check, check, check, check, and check!
Good picking and playing helps too of course, and this album has plenty of that evidenced in the first four high tempo songs that come at you like a bull out of the gate. If you’re going to write a theme song for your band dammit, it better be good, and that is exactly what the song “Hellbound Glory” is. Though Leroy Virgil and the boys might be best known for excellent songwriting conveyed with a Waylon-like approach to country, I hear a lot of Jerry Reed in Scumbag Country. Waylon made his hay in half time. Jerry did it in double. And with parallel double lead guitar lines like can be found in the very fun songs “Hello Five-O” and “Chico’s Train”, Leroy proves he’s studied country in all it’s forms, and he defies any pigeonholing.
And just when you you think this album is going to be all up-tempo, rowdy songs with screaming guitar licks, here comes possibly the best Hellbound Glory song ever, “The Ballad of Scumbag Country”, slowed down, deep fried, smothered and covered in soul. Great albums are smart in how they approach song order, and the way the first four songs set the table for this ballad is brilliant.
Songs like “Livin’ This Way”, “I’ll Be Your Rock (At Rock Bottom)” are superb in their own right, though naysayer might point out that they work in the very classic mold of “songwriter” country songs: taking a line and then folding it back in on itself for the appeal of irony. When it’s done right, it should always be enjoyed. When it’s all that a songwriter can do, it becomes exposed. Leroy Virgil, with a song like “The Ballad of Scumbag Country” proves he can work without a net, without a formula, and still give the song impact in the heart of the listener.
Scumbag Country‘s songs are always honest, never bombastic, even though they may hold a lot of bravado. That balance is not easy. I swear it seems like on every album, even the great ones, there’s one song I just can’t like, and “Get Your Shit And Go” is the one from this album. I guess this is why God created the fast forward button. Some purists might grumble at “Are You Sure Hank Done It Their Way”, but to the respect of Hellbound Glory, Waylon is given full credit for the song, and I think the intention of the song is pure.
Just like Old Highs, Scumbag Country is superbly recorded and produced, without the flubby, homespun feel that may hold other projects back in the eyes of the wider public. Once again Leroy Virgil proves he is a multi-dimensional artist by being able to play the producer’s role with his own songs better than anyone else could for him. I wouldn’t second guess any decision on this album, and fellow Hellbound members Chico Kortan (drums), Johnny Fingers (lead guitar), Frank Median (bass), and Adam Jaffe (pedal steel and banjo) do an excellent job fleshing out Leroy’s vision.
What else can I say except for that if you liked Old Highs and New Lows, then Scumbag Country is essential. And though the drug references are here, they are not as prevalent as in Old Highs, which in the end might even make this album more accessible.
Two guns way up!
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Scumbag Country can also be purchased directly from Hellbound Glory at hellboundglory.com