Frequent visitors to Saving Country Music know how much of a proponent of Reno, NV’s Hellbound Glory I am. Ever since I heard their second album Old Highs & New Lows over a year ago, there may be no band I’ve pushed harder for, and the album went on to be SCM’s 2010 Album of the Year. If you want to accuse Saving Country Music of being the house organ of Hellbound Glory, guilty as charged. I’m not just drinking the Hellbound Kool-Aid, I’m slapping two fingers on the inside of my arm, looking for a vein to mainline the stuff right in.
Their third official album Damaged Goods offers a shift in their approach, without sacrificing the authentic themes, energy, or the peerless wit in the songwriting that makes Hellbound Glory so engaging. The exit of the band’s drummer “Chico”, and a slightly, and I emphasize slightly tamer approach to the lyricism brings a lot more of an open sound to the band, and a new focus on what has always been their best asset: the songwriting prowess of frontman Leroy Virgil.
Damaged Goods is an excellent album with some excellent songs. The standouts are the heart-pumping opening track “Bastard Child”, and the gear-shifting, slow and soulful “Better Hope You Die Young” that embodies the heart of the Damaged Goods theme. The funnest track on the album is “She Left Me In Modesto”, where Virgil proves he can not only flash his pen with witty turns of of phrase, but also with telling a story. The song is so smart, you can’t help but picture yourself the protagonist, with the big payoff lyric at the end making you laugh out loud. “Lost Cause” is an upbeat song with a downbeat message, built on a bed of steel guitar and sad realism.
I caution, at first smell, the reaction from some familiar with Hellbound Glory will be that there’s no drums, and no drugs, and already I see this as a big talking point about this album going into the release. There is drums, or at least percussion on every song. They could have added more drums, or possibly even had Chico play on this album, but instead decided to take a minimal approach to compliment the songwriting, and to more fairly represent what they do live, which these days features no drummer from financial necessity, just Leroy Virgil sitting on a bass drum backwards to keep the beat.
And the drug references are still there, just slightly more subtle. Hellbound may have been unfairly pigeon-holed by some from Old Highs & New Lows that purposely took songs laced with drug references and bunched them together. But drug references were never all the band was about.
Good songwriters know how to relate to people with wit and authentic subjects and language, and that is what Leroy Virgil does, and did. He works with the language and themes of our time, but in no way is it outside of the boundaries or modes country music has always had. Hank Williams sang about “Honky Tonkin’,” Johnny Cash sang about pills and cocaine. Leroy sang about Oxycontin in the previous album because that is what people can relate to today. Now, as Leroy said himself about Damaged Goods when I interviewed him recently:
…it’s not so much about drugs, but the people that do drugs, the people that are in this scummy lifestyle that we live, why they live that way, and what’s going to happen if they continue living that way.
…taking the cautionary tale-approach to sin that has been a central theme to country music since it’s inception.
I would be lying if I called this my favorite Hellbound Glory album, but I’d also be lying if I said the more stylized and subtle approach doesn’t make this album so much more accessible that it opens Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory up to the broader recognition they deserve. The fact that Hellbound Glory, as big as they may be in certain circles, is still a relative unknown, is the clearest evidence I can procure that country music has no idea what it’s doing, and has no working system in place to mine and develop talent. At the least BMI and ASCAP should be shuttling suits out to Reno to poach Leroy’s brain for this high Sierra gold that would instantly raise the bar of songwriting in the mainstream country world.
But that’s where the big question about Leroy and Hellbound come in. Is that what they want? As much as I want to blame the music machine for their idiocy of overlooking Leroy, I think a bigger opportunity is there for Leroy if he wanted it, and was willing to work at it. He’s good enough to be noticed. But his unwillingness to compromise, and his concern that if he systematically changes who he is then the wit would stop flowing, has made him reluctant to aggressively pursue “success” in whatever form.
As for me, I’ve done all I can from my little podium here folks. Whatever cred the name Saving Country Music has, it is behind Hellbound Glory 100%. And now that they have an album where there’s no excuses, the undeniable talent of Hellbound Glory and Leroy Virgil is there for anyone with an authentic country heart to see. It is time for someone to step up. They don’t deserve the SCM Album of the Year, they deserve something better, something more than I can give. It is time for them to graduate, for someone a step higher to step up, put these boys as the opener on a serious tour, get them out of having to battle with a juke box full of rap music at brokedown bars, but also someone who understands their element, and how a loss of authenticity would be their demise.
As for me, I’m out of superlatives, except for one more.
Two guns up!
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