The Outlaw side of country is experiencing a big resurgence, and no, we’re certainly not talking about inside of the mainstream. If anything it’s in spite of what’s happening on the radio dial that this groundswell is occurring. It’s inspiring hardcore country artists to rise up and offer a counterbalance to the pop being offered as country. Guys like Whitey Morgan and the 78’s have been doing this for years of course, but now with the popularity of Cody Jinks and others, we’re seeing a whole new scene of these artist—guys like T. J. Hernandez, Dallas Moore, Mickey Lamantia, with many fans ready and willing to support them.
One such name is Bryan James. Originally from Killeen, TX and now living in Florida, James pledges his allegiance to tried and true country music with his third record since 2016 called Politics or Religion. You probably will draw strong conclusions about what this record sounds like simply from the title and cover, and once you give it a listen, you’ll conclude you’re right, but only partially. The title isn’t an ultimatum by the way, it’s about swearing off these contentious subjects in conversation.
The Southern accent is thick, many of the songs are gruff, attitudinal, and unapologetic, and the music is stone cold country. But if all the bluster from these modern day country music Outlaws really isn’t your thing, and an album cover with a screaming eagle bathed in the stars and stripes reminds you of a decal the annoying coal rollers in your town would have on their back window, you might be surprised at just how much quality songwriting is showcased on this record.
With all 14 songs being solo written by Bryan James aside for one, Politics or Religion has plenty of red meat slabs that the Outlaw country constituency craves, songs like “Slowing Down in Style” about not giving up or backing down, or “Drinking to The Point They Throw Me Out,” or “The Art of Not Giving A Damn.” There’s being out of style and perfectly unaware, and then there’s being out of style and not giving a damn, if not taking pride in it. The latter is what Bryan James espouses.
But the prevailing mood of Politics or Religion is one that runs against the grain of Outlaw bluster, showing surprising humility, gentleness, and vulnerability. And no matter what Bryan James is singing about, it’s always written very well, cover to cover. When he comes with “I Get It Now” about understanding the lessons we’re all taught while we’re younger, but may not understand until we’re older, Bryan surprises you with the depth, and his ability to sing a soft and slow song. He proves this again in the unburdening “Dear Heaven,” being willing to admit both his pain, and his doubt.
Again and again on Politics and Religion, Bryan James proves he can deliver the songs for both Saturday Night—like the ending song “It Won’t Be Today” about being slow to change habits—and Sunday morning, like the reflective “On Borrowed Time,” or the sweet sentiments of fatherhood found in “The Promise.” You could take this record and split it down the middle, and almost tell the tale of two completely separate artists, one that you see as the modern incarnation of a hellraising Johnny Paycheck character, and another whose songwriting could be set right beside some of today’s most sentimental writers like Lori McKenna. Yet despite the devil/angel aspect, it all blends very well on the record, because it all feels very personal to Bryan James.
Politics or Religion will present challenges for some, including a few incurred even before you hear a peep of the music. If the cover and the title don’t turn you off, the voice of Bryan James may. There’s no reason to believe he is faking his strong Southern accent. The outskirts of Killeen, TX are pretty darn country. But when many of the tones coming from him feel like a variation on an ‘R’ sound no matter the consonant or vowel, it will be a turn off for some, even if it’s the exact reason others may want to listen. When you hear Bryan James sing at the beginning of “Dear Heaven” where he dials back the accent for a bit, it just feels more real. Even though the album is well-produced, there’s also a strange doubling up on the vocal signal in some of the choruses that makes his voice sound processed.
And despite the album’s title coming from Bryan’s sworn promise to not broach polarizing subjects because of how argumentative they can become, the song “No Nice Way to Say It” lashes out at those who complain about victimhood, making it fair to characterize as veering into the political realm.
Nonetheless, from what you may assume of Politics or Religion because of the cover and the title, to what you actually get is two different things, while the established fans of Bryan James get exactly what they’re looking for.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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