Vintage Album Review – Roger Wallace’s ‘Hillbilly Heights’

May 10, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  17 Comments

In 1999, a true underground in country music was coming into form. Neo-traditionalists and country punks moved into lower Broadway in Nashville, revitalizing the area and establishing a home base for young, like-minded musicians offering up an alternative to whatever was going on a mile away on Music Row. BR549‘s residency at Robert’s Western World was in full swing, and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn was up and running with bands like Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Hillbilly Casino.

Then the grandson of Hank Williams put out a debut album with a neo-traditional style that featured three songs from an Austin, TX artist named Wayne “The Train” Hancock, taking the country music underground transcontinental. Along with Dale Watson, another superb Austin, TX performer, this three-headed monster started rattling the cage of the country music world, gnashing their teeth at Nashville and name dropping each other in songs and on stage.

Amongst all the bustle and big names in 1999, another superlative Austin talent released a debut album a little more quietly. The idea that there’s an amazing, world-class music talent on every corner of Austin, TX is not a myth, and Roger Wallace is a testament to that. But what many of Austin’s legendary local artists don’t have that Roger Wallace does is that one album, that one work that stands out from the crowd and withstands the test of time.

Named for the semi-famous Austin apartment complex he was living in at the time, Hillbilly Heights is a timeless treasure of country music. This album could be put out today, or in 1975, and its music would still sound just as fresh and engaging and speak to everyday lives as it did in 1999. If space aliens came down and asked me to choose one album that represented country music, after shitting myself from the shock of being accosted by aliens, I very well may hand them over a copy of Hillbilly Heights, worried that a Hank Williams album from the 50’s may be too classic for their taste, or a more modern album too pop.

But like so many of these Austin country music stars, self-promotion and the world outside of the Austin corridor is an afterthought with Roger, and that is how Hillbilly Heights and Roger have remained obscure to so many outside of Texas. A check of Roger’s website shows he hasn’t updated his show dates since George W. has his legs propped up in Oval Office. Austin becomes so comfortable for many musicians, it’s hard for them to leave or focus their energy elsewhere.

Hillbilly Heights is an album of instant classics. Populated with 9 Wallace originals and a smart batch of covers, it never slips up, never reveals a bad moment, it just keeps giving pure classic country gold. The formula for making good classic country these days is to get it to sound like the old stuff, yet to bring fresh themes and approaches to the songs. That’s easier said than done, but exactly what Roger Wallace does, like with the song “Don’t Nobody Love Me (Like My Baby)” that starts out as a good love song, but then reveals itself to be an even greater murder ballad.

I wouldn’t call Roger’s voice “big”, but what do all the ladies tell us? Roger’s size doesn’t matter because of how he uses it, with an acute sense of inflection and timing in his pentameter to squeeze the ultimate amount of pain and suffering out of his stories. And like Roger displays in his original “Nobody But Me”, he can go way up there in the register to really bring out the sorrow in a song. Writing songs that compliment your vocal strengths is something most artists struggle with. This is one of Roger’s greatest assets. Even in 1999, Roger was carrying an aged pain in his voice well beyond his years, yet he delivers it with a smoothness and confidence.

The late 90’s, early 2000’s here ten years later feel like the golden-era of the classic country resurgence, with some fans of Hank3 wishing he’d go back in that era, with Wayne Hancock fans finally wearing out their copies of Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson never reaching the same energy of Live in London again, and BR549 long since defunct. If you wish you could go back in time and re-live those same feelings or find out what you missed, Roger Wallace and Hillbilly Heights is where to start.

Today Roger Wallace can be seen on virtually any night of the week in Austin, plying his craft at legendary venues like The Continental Club, The Broken Spoke, and Ginny’s Little Longhorn, the same haunts Dale Watson keeps residence at when he’s in town as well. So why doesn’t he receive the same recognition as Dale and others nationally? One can’t say, but one listen to Hillbilly Heights will tell you that Roger Wallace is world class.

Two Guns Up!

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Hillbilly Heights

17 Comments to “Vintage Album Review – Roger Wallace’s ‘Hillbilly Heights’”

  • I’m gonna have to look for this guy the next time I head down to Austin.

  • check him out every other Friday at the White Horse in Austin.

  • I’ve always wondered why Roger isn’t more well known. The guy’s got a great sound, great songs, and a great voice! I definitely second the two guns up rating on this one, too.

    • i agree. very nice. ‘nobody loving me’ in particular.

  • I’ve been a fan for a while I really love his sound.

  • I just “discovered” Blaze Foley today and now this Roger Wallace fellow. been a good day for new music in the Lunchbox household.

  • Thanks for postin, this album, “The Low Down” & “That Kind of Lonely” are all country gold from Roger Wallace… but yes… you HAVE to have THIS album, A must for a real country fan…. been preachin ol Mr. Wallace for years…..

  • Thanks for the vintage album article Trigg. I look forward to other articles that might jolt the memory or introduce me to something I missed.

  • While you are mentioning classic hidden country gems,maybe everyone could check out Bob Woodruff “Dreams And Saturday Nights” from 1994.In my opinion this album is only second to “Guitar Town” as far as debut albums go.Great writing, music, and vocals with a really nice duet with Emmylou Harris.

  • There’s definitely something about him. His voice almost has an Elvis-esk quality to it.

  • I’ve got all 3 of Rogers’ CD’s and they are all great. He has kind of disapeared out of the spot light, just like Ed Burleson who is also one of my favorites. I wish they would both come out with a new album, there are very few new folks coming out that is straight forward country. I do like Whitey Morgan, Jackson Taylor and Justin Trevino to name a few. Thanks for the article. Todd

    • Your missing one Roger has 4 cds out
      That kind of lonely
      The lowdown
      Hillbilly heights
      It’s about time

  • Love his sound – nice mix of Texas and Bakersfield on this one. Will have to check out the rest of the album.

    I like that you are looking back to albums like this, which I missed… though calling a 1999 album vintage makes me feel really old.

  • I’ve been a Roger Wallace fan for about 5 years now (I live in Austin), Roger is as good a traditional country/rockabilly singer as I’ve ever heard. He also has one of the best lead guitarists anywhere in the world, Jim Stringer.

  • Love Roger Wallace. Glad you went vintage to remind us of this album!

  • What a fabulous singer and great album!!!!!!

  • Great album, good live. It’s a bit of a mystery why he hasn’t found a wider audience. Honestly, my two cents is, especially in Texas but to some degree everywere that charisma(whatever that is but we all know it when we see it) of the live performance is everything in terms of buliding an audience. Once you have the chops and the tunes it’s about being able to project that do an audience in a way that makes them spread the word about you and helps you grow and expand your audience.Something a Dale Watson has in spades hence his growth now days world wide. Roger always seems like he is holding back for some reason. He just needs to let it fly on stage he is most certinaly talented enough to be farther along career wise than he is.

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