It’s an indelible part of country music mythology. Right beside the stories of the country hayseeds rising out of the rural landscape to become superstars, there are parallel stories of the singers and songwriters that had the stuff to be nationally-recognized names, but due to certain circumstances, are sitting in half empty barrooms somewhere, singing their sad songs to sometimes nobody. As depressing as the situation may seem, when you discover one of these overlooked artists and listen to their songs, it can be magic. And sometimes, history sets right what the here and now gets wrong.
If there was ever one to embody this unjust and often capricious selection process in country music, it would be Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory. Before Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, and Zach Bryan were being hyped to the arena level, it was Hellbound Glory that was setting the underground country world on fire, even if they were still playing half empty barrooms. But perhaps Leroy was smarter than the rest of us by remaining mostly obscure. As he once sang, “Getting rich would be the last thing I’d ever need. Drugs are all I’d spend it on. I’d be dead before too long.”
Staying underground is how Leroy Virgil has survived, even as the blazing music of Hellbound Glory’s early albums easily eclipsed the output of peers, and put them at the apex of appreciation by the country fans who dug a little deeper. The new album The Immortal Hellbound Glory: Nobody Knows You finds Leroy Virgil embracing his sad bastard situation as he’s transitions from a young scrapper from the greasy streets of Reno looking to set stages ablaze, to a country-based veteran singer/songwriter living in the mountains outside of town with a bit more wisdom on his brow, and hard-worn gravel in his voice.
Nobody Knows You sees Leroy Virgil moving away from some of his writing of witty one-liners and self-indulgent characters to more story-based compositions. “Can’t Wait to Never See You Again” and “Word Gets Around” take classic approaches to country songwriting, but in a way that still is distinct to Leroy. But the album also finds a more folk-oriented approach to songwriting as well. “13 Corners” about the winding mountain roads of the interior West weaves a cautionary tale more indicative of writing from the 50s and 60s, while “Evacuation Song” about the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018 is something Woody Guthrie might have written if he was still around.
But this album also remains distinctly Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory. Leroy wrote these songs to meld with his gravely voice, and they feel like they were ripped right from Leroy’s real world experiences. And though the album is a bit more understated and mature compared to his last couple of raucous Shooter Jennings-produced albums Pinball and Pure Scum, Nobody Knows You ends with Leroy reminding you that the party is not over for him with the penultimate song declaring “Didn’t Die Young (Ain’t Done Trying).”
Because Hellbound Glory these days is basically centered around its long time frontman, the musical treatment brought to these songs is more what Shooter’s studio gang came up with as opposed to a signature sound that defines this band. Gone are the days of the dueling Telecasters indicative of Jerry Reed, or original drummer Chico’s aggressive fills. But the folks who showed up did a fine job bringing these songs to life, while also understanding the filthy dive bar vibe Leroy was going for here, complete with little bits of commentary from Leroy on the tracks, like he was performing them live.
There’s a reason Leroy picked the old blues standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down” to be the de facto title track of this record. Nobody may know Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory beyond the circles that lurk around somewhere like Saving Country Music. But Leroy knows himself, and where he is at in his career, embracing his role as an overlooked soul who may have never “made it,” but is beloved by those who are fortunate enough to be in-the-know. He’s the embodiment of the great unknown country music legend. But as we’ve seen in the past, sometimes those unknowns don’t stay that way forever. They are the ones to ultimately be revealed as the true icons of an era.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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