Don’t take my word for it. Ask around the Texas music scene about who some of the most well-respected songwriters are at the moment, and many will include the name Zane Williams on that list. And Zane’s got the hardware and recognition to prove it. A former finalist of MerleFest’s prestigious Chris Austin songwriting award, and a winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for his song “Hurry Home,” he landed a publishing deal with Big Yellow Dog Music in 2007, and later “Hurry Home” became a Top 15 hit for Jason Michael Carol.
That element of smarts that has gone into many of Zane’s songs has also manifested itself into moments off the stage when Zane has said or done things that put an issue into perspective, or result in a sum positive for the music. This was evidenced in a big way when the unfortunate and all too common occurrence of his van getting stolen in Houston eventually resulted in an entire crime network targeting bands getting rolled up due to Zane’s tracking device. A song he wrote on the fly about the incident when it first happened showed just what kind of songwriting chops Zane possesses.
You wouldn’t consider Zane Williams anything but a country artist, but a couple of the songs on his last record Texas Like That, specifically “Throwback” seemed to be his own stab at the whole Bro-Country thing, justly give true country listeners some pause when admitting Zane Williams fandom. Even if Zane has plenty of other songs to make up for some of his creative transgressions, there have been a couple of moments where he’s crossed into commercial territory that you can’t go if you want to keep your reputation clean. And like happens so often, these commercially-oriented tracks didn’t really break Zane into superstardom.
But Zane Williams is a smart one, and like many others are recognizing, he understands that the new trend in country music, is actual country music. And this has been exemplified in the Texas scene as much as anywhere with the success of more authentically country performers like the Turnpike Troubadours and Cody Jinks, and with the surprising reception for Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen’s Hold My Beer Vol. 1 in 2015.
Zane Williams senses that people want by God country music again, and that’s exactly what he delivers on the aptly titled Bringin’ Country Back. What’s a bit interesting is that preceding this record and along the same theme was the release of Kevin Fowler’s “Sellout Song” written by Zane. You can tell it likely came from the same crop of songs, or the same songwriting sessions in how it directly broaches the subject about the quality of country and the motivations of certain artists. As was fair, some accused Fowler (and Zane) of a “pot calling kettle” quality to “Sellout Song,” while also questioning the potency of these country protest songs after they’ve become almost as prevalent as the songs they’re protesting.
But Bringin’ Country Back finds Zane giving tried and true examples of country songs himself instead of just complaining about the bad stuff, while not settling down too comfortably in any one particular style. It does get pretty acrimonious though in the hard country Outlaw-style title track:
The murderers on Music Row thought they killed the sound
But it ain’t dead and gone, it’s just gone underground
I bet those Opry singers are rolling in their grave
Watching some of these young guns prancing ’round the stage
Like a little kid trying to wear their daddy’s hat
I hope they can hear me singing, I hope they know that I’m bringing country back
“Honkytonk Situation” is a Texas dancehall shuffle with plenty of fiddle like you might hear from the Turnpike Troubadours, “Church of Country Music” nears almost Western Swing in how it has a jazzy, swaying feel as it affirms the virtues of country by comparing it to a music fan’s Sunday ritual. Like much of true country music, there’s plenty of praise for being out on the back porch and among nature on the record, and songs for the working man like “Keep On Keepin’ On.”
Yet the songwriting on Bringin’ Country Back doesn’t feel like songs written from inspiration as much as perspiration at laboring to make country songs that sound like country songs. It’s like Zane envisioned this concept and then wrote the material for it as opposed to letting the material come to him and then discovering a cohesive theme to construct an album around. So even though Bringin’ Country Back certainly accomplishes its stated goal, at least when it comes to the career of Zane Williams, and certainly is an enjoyable record, it’s hard to find the song on this record that really speaks to you or blows your mind in how it encapsulates some element of heartbreak, for example.
Nonetheless, songs like the final number “Willie’s Road” have flourishes of wit, and remind you what being a country music fan is all about. Bringin’ Country Back isn’t just an album of country music, it is an album about country music, what country music means, what it’s like to be a fan, and maybe even a guidepost to fans and artists explaining what country music is since the definition of “country” has been so besmirched and bastardized recently. From that perspective it makes sense that the songwriting was a bit simplified, almost like a lesson of what country music is supposed to be while not sailing over the head of the average listener. Though it could have used a bit more originality, Zane gets extra credit for the effort and the intent of Bringin’ Country Back, and ultimately delivers an enjoyable, and country, record.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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