Album Review – Mike Kuster’s “Better Late Than Never”

We can lament how in in this modern era of country music, you won’t hear the best traditional country artists out there on the radio anymore, and how most are relegated to hanging around their hometowns, playing and recording music when they can. Or, you can feel infinitely blessed that in this modern era of country music, technology has allowed us to scour the countryside, find the best at the country craft no matter where they may linger, and allow these artists to find the fans their music deserves as well.

The latter case is how you should consider the music of rural Maryland’s Mike Kuster. His resume reads more like a candidate for a local mayoral race than a big country music artist. He’s a 4-H volunteer and officer for his local chapter in Frederick County, helping out around the local 4-H Camp. He serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission for the Town of Walkersville, population 5,800. He married his high school sweetheart, who he met via the FFA club.

To sing country, you have to live country, and that’s what makes the music of Mike Kuster so much more meaningful. It comes with that real life, lived-in and loved aspect that you just don’t get from the antiseptic and formulaic notions of big radio singles. These are songs cut straight from life, yet give up nothing when it comes to quality and instrumentation compared to major label releases.

Better Late Than Never is aptly titled as the married father of three takes his stab at something that he’s dabbled with his entire life, but life got in the way of pursuing full time. Like so many albums of the last couple of years, COVID created the impetus to finally make that country album he’d always wanted to. But for Mike Kuster, the COVID inspiration was significantly more personal.

People may be tired of everything COVID at this point, but his song “The COVID Floor” about a nurse who must become isolated from her family is the kind of time-stamped song that will withstand the test of time longer than the pandemic, kind of like “T.B. Blues” by Jimmie Rodgers.

Kuster’s wife actually is a COVID nurse working on the local hospital’s COVID floor. Kuster had to isolate away from her in a guesthouse during the heart of the pandemic, and bored one day, he started raffling through a box of old love letters from his wife. “I know you’ll make it in Nashville,” one read, reminding him of a previous life where pursuing a career in country music was a real possibility. So Mike started writing songs again, with “The COVID Floor” becoming the first song he released. The story hit home to so many, it’s helped spark his later-in-life career.

There are multiple meaningful moments on Better Late Than Never, but there are ample upbeat and humorous songs as well. The “hit” of the effort might be “Friends with Benefits,” which has one of those choruses that goes on too long in the best of ways like “Blame It On Your Heart” by Patty Loveless. The other COVID-related song from the set “Seeing Less Than Half Their Faces” is also a hoot, and “King of the Honky Tonk” is a good time too.

And if Mike Kuster was going to wait all this time to release a country album, he was going to do it right. Who did he rope in to help bring the songs of Better Late Than Never to life? How about living fiddle and mandolin legend Michael Cleveland, professional Nashville session players Chris Condon on guitar and Smith Curry on steel, and it was all produced by Daniel Robert Ford (a.k.a Dr. Ford) in Nashville.

The instrumentation on this album is some of the best you’ll hear. Of course, Michael Cleveland couldn’t turn in a bad solo if he tried, and the lead guitar solos on songs like “Country Music Whiskey and One Good Friend” and “I’m Leaving Home” are just so hot, it makes this album worth a spin even if Mike Kuster’s writing isn’t your suit. And to be fair, some of these songs can be hit or miss, depending on your sensibilities. Some may take a song like “FarmHer” as a little too sentimental. But for others, it hits home.

Anyone can hire pro pickers and make a record though. It’s the personal and true-to-life stories that Mike Kuster puts to song that make Better Late Than Never much more than just a local project from a local singer, even if it’s the local flavor of the songs that make them so resonant, sincere, and so distinctly country like country music is supposed to be. That is why local country artist Mike Kuster deserves national and international attention.

1 3/4 Guns Up

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