Album Review – Alex Key’s “Neon Signs and Stained Glass”

From Wilkesboro, North Carolina where the mighty MerleFest holds forth every year, Alex Key is a staunchly traditional country artist who’s been flying scandalously under the radar, while at the same time assembling a rather strong fan base from those thirsty for country music that actually sounds like country. Now on his second album of original songs in as many years, Neon Signs and Stained Glass is most certainly worthy of your consideration.

There is absolutely no wiggle room between the textbook definition of what country music is, what country music is supposed to be, and what Alex Key and his band The Locksmiths lay down. With all the endless questions and ongoing bickering about what country music is and isn’t, if you want a bulletproof audio example, listen to Alex Key and this album, and you’ll be set straight.

For Alex Key, making traditional country music is a family affair. Raised on the music of Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, and George Strait by his mother, mom is now his manager, and the Alex Key operation is fully self-funded, in-house, and independent. There’s no label or publicist. Saving Country Music is the only national outlet so far to pick up on his music. But many traditional country fans are sharing it among themselves, and Alex Key is driving around in a tour bus with his face on the side of it.

Alex Key also handles all his own songwriting, which might be the most remarkable and impressive part about Neon Signs and Stained Glass. Yes, he sticks right close to common themes of country songs. That’s one of the things that makes him so country. The “Saturday Night / Sunday Morning” song has been done many times, but Alex’s title song “Neon Signs and Stained Glass” finds enough new wrinkles to still make it enjoyable. Same goes for the “Can’t Tame a Cowboy” trope, but Key’s “Can’t Love the Leaving out of a Cowboy” still works well.

And of course, the music itself is in absolute lock step with the kind of traditional country that is indicative of the early 90s, which inadvertently puts Alex Key and this album square in the middle of a popularity trend at the moment. But even if this style was considered fuddy-duddy like it was 10 years ago, after listening to this album, you feel Alex would be rendering his original country songs in this more traditional style anyway. Some folks just live and breathe country music, and Alex Key comes from that breed.

And of course, you can’t have good traditional country without a good traditional country voice, and Alex Key checks that box as well, even if his inflections feel practiced and perfected from listening and emulating all those great crooners from the 90s as opposed to something entirely original to himself. You can levy a similar criticism about the entire approach here. It’s great, it’s country, but it also sticks so close to the country music guideposts, some may feel it lacks a uniqueness to separate it from the back catalogs of established country greats.

But hey, in this era in country music, actually being country is its own bold and unique approach, and Alex Key is most certainly country. Completely independent, with a swelling online following, Alex Key is worthy of a national audience, and finding it in people looking for country’s next participant in the roots resurgence.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.7/10)

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