Album Review – Muscadine Bloodline’s “Dispatch to 16th Ave.”

Yeah, I’ve heard of Muscadine Bloodline. What’s that one website that won’t shut the hell up about them, Risky Whiff? Amid an insane amount of hype, I pulled up Muscadine’s last album, 2020’s Burn It At Both Ends. It was fine I guess, even good if you wanted to consider it rubbing up against the country mainstream in Nashville. But it also felt quite directionless. It’s like they were yearning to be traditionalists or independent Texas stars, but the invasive tentacles of Music Row still wormed their way into their approach and production, like they were still holding onto the idea of courting a big label deal, and maybe winning some mainstream radio spins if the cards fell right.

Burn It At Both Ends tried to have it both ways, satisfying neither really, and just ended up with a disjointed version of contemporary country rock, fun enough for their fans, and with some good songs, but kind of cacophonous in trying to define a Muscadine Bloodline sound, or distinguish themselves. Their fans loved it though, so who would care about the constructive criticism of that Saving Country guy? What’s his name. Shooter? No, Trigger? Hell, that guy doesn’t seem to like anything except Mike and the Moonpies anyway.

Half measures are certainly not what you receive on the Alabama duo’s latest effort though, Dispatch to 16th Ave. If Muscadine Bloodline’s Gary Stanton and Charlie Muncaster were holding out any hope of winning the passing fancy of one of country music’s executive suits, they torched that bridge with the title track. 16th Ave. is one of the two one-way streets that make up Music Row in Nashville, and it receives ample doses of rage and bile to open this nine track album. And maybe this full-thoated country music protest song would get the attention of all those more insurgent country fans they were looking to court.

But it’s not that easy. 20 years ago when Dale Watson was writing songs like “Country My Ass” and “Nashville Rash,” and George Strait and Alan Jackson were winning CMA Awards for “Murder On Music Row,” that may have been the case. Now, many hard country music fans find these protest songs as cliché as the music they’re criticizing. Even if “Dispatch to 16th Ave.” is one of the better ones you will hear (and it is), it’s better to just prove how bad country music is today by putting out your own songs that are so much better. Luckily, that’s what the balance of the new Muscadine Bloodline album is all about.

Instead of weighing down good songs with excessive production and stylistic shifts in attempts to appeal to disparate constituencies, Dispatch to 16th Ave. strips it back, slows it down, and lets the weight of the moments, and the strength of the writing get exposed. The nine songs all run together in an immersive and contiguous listening experience, and though the music still doesn’t fit nice an snug in any specific genre—combining influences from country, blues, rock, and melodic sensibilities indicative of the Texas music crowd (the Koe, Colby, Cody, Kody, Coe guys)—it does define a Muscadine Bloodline sound, which is a smart blend of all of these influences.

The songwriting is never stellar—more relying on time-tested country themes as opposed to trying to forge their own. But it’s always solid, with co-writing contributions from Brent Cobb and Adam Hood among others. What makes these Muscadine Bloodline songs cut to your bones is composing music that fits so well with the songs. The droning, dreary, emotionally-laden moments of “My Side Of Town” really allow them to resonate to your core. Same for “No Pedal Steel.” You won’t hear a lot from the console instrument on this album, but they save it for the right moments. Mostly the instrumentation is Charlie Muncaster playing acoustic guitar, Gary Stanton on electric, and only a few more contributions from members of their touring band.

“Dyin’ for a Livin’ is the only full fledged loud band track on the entire record, while it’s songs like “Southern” co-written with Adam Hood that more define the listening experience. Yes, this song has been done before, and many times. But a wrinkle at the end makes it a bit more endearing. There are a few of those wrinkles and twists on this record that take familiar country song themes, and make them distinctly Muscadine. And what the hell is “muscadine” anyway? A type of grapevine? Okay, I’ll Google it next time. Get off my back.

There really is a lot of energy and hype around this band, and some pretty ardent fans. Is Muscadine Bloodline worth it? They may be. But without a doubt, Dispatch to 16th Ave. is a big step towards their goal of being one of those top flight independent bands holding Music Row to account. And most importantly, the album also goes a long way toward defining who Muscadine Bloodline really is.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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