Like a more countrified version of John Prine, or a more compositionally-minded version of Jerry Jeff Walker during his gonzo era, Mac Leaphart immediately earns your ear and devotion with this handful of incredibly well-written songwriter songs and rousing boot scooters that are just about perfectly produced and ripe for repeat listening. It’s rare these days you run into one of those albums that immediately gives you that tingly feeling like you know you’ll still be listening to it years from now, but this is one of them. Music City Joke ain’t no laughing matter.
This isn’t a debut album from this South Carolina-native, but it sure feels like one. He’s been around for years, but you’ve probably never heard of him. That’s not entirely your fault though. First moving to Nashville in 2012, Mac Leaphart fell into the hustle of trying to write songs for others, and found only marginal success in that pursuit, especially on the commercial side. So instead of continuing to attempt to push that stone up the hill, he decided to center his focus on his own songs, and the results speak for themselves.
It’s hard to know where to start showering praise here because there’s so many great songs, but how about “Blame on the Bottle,” which puts a new spin on the old country drinking song. Wisdom mixed with personal responsibility is not usually what you expect in woe-is-me country, but it’s fresh and welcomed. This is an album of hitting all the usual benchmarks of the best songwriter-based country music, while avoiding all the ruts and tropes.
“Ballad of Bob Yamaha or A Simple Plea in C Major” is just about everything you want from a songwriter’s song; so wry and immediately humorous, it would be the top song from many a songwriter’s portfolio, but it may not even be the strongest track on this record. Deftly using literary devices like personification and metaphor better than most laboring with these tools the written medium, Leaphart applies these skills brilliantly to music, like in “Window from the Sky” about a bird trapped in a house that you can’t help but relate to, and be warmed by.
But Mac Leaphart is here to offer stimulation to all your musical erogenous zones, not just the intellectual ones. He finds an excellent melody on “That Train,” and isn’t afraid to ride it well past the usual stopping point. And when he gets down and dirty with Twangy country sounds, it’s greasy and loose, yet blessed with the limber fingers of top Nashville pickers putting it down in a way you feel in your flesh. Mac Leaphart and Music City Joke is a full body experience.
“Honey, Shake!” “Music City Joke,” and when “Blame It on the Bottle” goes to the steel guitar solo, you’re sent into country music heaven. There’s excellent steel, banjo, fiddle, and harmonica parts on this album, and Mac himself is a sly guitar player when he wants to showcase it. The instrumental brilliance on the album is not the featured act—that would be the songwriting. But when it appears, it’s resplendent. Music City Joke fails to hit a bad note.
The album may start off a little slow for some, with the opening song “El Paso Kid” first appearing on Leaphart’s previous album Low in the Saddle, Long in the Tooth from 2015. But patience is rewarded, as are subsequent spins as smart turns of phrase reveal themselves. Music City Joke really gives you everything you want from a country and roots record, and feels like one we’ll be talking about all year, and using it as a measuring stick for a while.
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