Album Review – John Baumann’s “Border Radio”

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Yes, there are still songwriters out there that write the songs they want to write, and only then figure out if anyone out there wants to listen to them, or how to make money from them if possible. Perhaps even more surprising is when the songwriter actually does find an audience for these songs, and does make some money for their efforts.

Texas songwriter John Baumann is one of those rare birds. From his song “Gulf Moon” being recorded by Kenny Chesney, to cutting the rambunctious song “Country Music’s Dead” with Mike Harmeier of Mike and the Moonpies, to multiple songs as a solo performer being considered for Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year, he’s inexplicably kept his integrity in tact, while also finding a way to make a living from it.

Perhaps nobody evokes geography in their music from the perspective of a songwriter better than John Baumann. This is one of the reasons he was drafted into the West Texas supergroup The Panhandlers with Josh Abbott, Cleto Cordero, and William Clark Green, and he’s not even from West Texas. He’s originally from the San Antonio area, and cut his teeth in Austin instead of Lubbock.

Baumann’s deep knowledge of South Texas and the intersection of cross border culture and geography comes into good use on his new album Border Radio. Whether you’re from Laredo, or never as much as stepped foot in Texas aside from a layover at the Dallas airport, John Baumann transports you from your excruciatingly ordinary everyday surroundings to a rich and colorful landscape that feels both distinctly foreign and strangely familiar.

From the gold paint job on a snazzy El Camino, to the gold of a sunset mixed with the dusty hues of the South Texas air, John Baumann doesn’t just dazzle you with words, he enhances the experience with visuals derived from the richness of the language, and the love with which it’s delivered. Cruising down a South Texas highway straddling the Mexican border is where you’re headed when you press play.

If we’re being honest, some elements of the opening songs “Gold El Camino,” “Revving Engines, River Street,” and “South Texas Tradition” could be mistaken for Bro-Country in an alternate context. The references to vehicles, hunting, and drinking would come across different if sung over an electronic beat, or they weren’t imbued with more regional references like Permian Shale.

“Boys Town” might sound like somewhere intercity youth go to play board games and basketball to stay out of trouble. But it’s one of multiple walled-off neighborhoods just over the Mexican border where enlisted men and others would cross for dalliances with prostitutes. It’s these kinds of regional references that allow a John Baumann song to put you right in the place he wants you to be.

One of the great things about John Baumann songs is he doesn’t ask too much from his audience, or too little. He asks for just enough. And then every once in a while he’ll spring a really deep song on you to satisfy that appetite for something more meaningful. That is what he does on the songs “Border Radio” and “Turning Gold.” But it’s the rambunctious “Saturday Night Comes Once A Week,” or the simple love song “My Heart Belongs To You” that speak to John Baumann’s wide appeal while not compromising on quality.

Though this album shepherds you away to South Texas, Baumann doesn’t call upon sounds to do it. So often on records from Texas country artists, there’s that one song where they break out the horns, squeeze box, and bad Spanglish, making for a fiesta of clichés as opposed to something that feels authentic or worldly. Baumann’s words are enough to convey the landscapes, textures, and architecture he looks to call to mind.

If anything, Border Radio might be a little hampered by the music being a little too undistinguished. It sits down in this sort of country-adjacent Americana sound and doesn’t really budge, though this is the accompaniment you’ve come to expect from a songwriter-based album.

The great thing about great songs is the songs are often enough, and they find appeal irrespective of genre, or even subject matter specifically. Whether South Texas holds a special place in your heart or you’ve never even been to the United States, Border Radio will swell a sentimental, almost sad feeling in your heart, and a longing for the region once the music’s over. But that’s the great thing about music. You can always listen and return again.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.1/10)

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