Album Review – T.J. Hernandez’s “Destination Unknown”

You can’t get 30 seconds into this new record from T.J. Hernandez without being convinced you’ve landed in the right place. The voice is somewhere between Cody Jinks and Jamey Johnson. The music is pure uncut country. The production is just about perfect. And the songs hit the spot. It’s a traditional country oasis in a COVID-cruded and contemporary-overrun country world that you couldn’t be happier to hear pouring out of your speakers.

With so many of country music’s institutions sold out to the highest bidder and corrupted by the infiltration of pop, the music must be kept alive by a citizens brigade of hardcore believers in both full and part-time capacities, holding court in honky tonk enclaves clinging on for dear life on the outskirts of town. Nobody’s getting rich, and there’s certainly nothing glamorous about it. But it’s like country music communion for those devout few that wouldn’t make or listen to country music any other way.

It’s from this world that songwriter and performer T.J. Hernandez emerges with a batch of new songs in his first full-length release called Destination Unknown. Though he might often be seen performing his songs acoustically, the album is a full-fledged production led by respected country producer Bill McDermott and recorded at OmniSound Studios Nashville with top notch session guys. Writing or co-writing eight of the eleven songs, the record is quite an accomplishment for a guy who just got back into music a few years ago.

Inspired after first hearing the music of Cody Jinks back in 2016, and then soon discovering the entire world of independent country artists, T.J. Hernandez freshened up his guitar skills from when he was younger, and started hacking away at writing original songs. This initially resulted in a 7-song EP from 2018 called Here I Am. But now with this new one, Hernandez is hoping to not just emulate his modern-day traditional country heroes, he’s hoping to join their ranks.

Taking the age old advice of writing about what you know about, the songs of Destination Unknown are all about a man consumed with the passion for country music and songwriting, but trying to balance that with the requirements and constraints of a normal life and a loved one at home. The demons that rise to the surface when you become a creature of the night life are also sung about. T.J. Hernandez’s voice is perfect for this stuff. It’s crazy he allowed it to lay dormant for so many years.

Enough can’t be said about the entire package put together on Destination Unknown. All the stops were taken out, and if T.J. broke the bank to get it made, it was worth every penny. Hats off to all the pickers and players like Steve Hinson on pedal steel and James Mitchell on guitar, who for those who may not recognize the names, are some of the top names in Nashville session work. And even though this is a very straightforward Outlaw-style traditional country record, producer Bill McDermott did bring a grander vision to the project and really made it the best it could be.

The one concern with Destination Unknown is the songs may be a little too much shop talk from a struggling country songwriter for some of the audience to really connect deeply with. Hernandez shows himself to be a good writer. Perhaps the lightest song on the record is “Desperate Men” which is an old tune written in part by Billy Don Burns and Hank Cochran. But broadening his themes may be to T.J.’s benefit. At the same time, musicians and songwriters like himself struggling with that balance of home vs. stage might relate to this music acutely. Not to jinx T.J., but you could hear Cody Jinks or some other artist cutting one of these songs in the future.

T.J. Hernandez heard the call of country music like so many others do, where it’s not a choice to perform or factored in as a hobby. It’s a compulsory requirement to pursue the music no matter the consequences, like so many artists who sacrifice greatly to get the music to the people, and preserve it for the future do. With Destination Unknown, T.J. Hernandez is no longer a spectator in that endeavor. He’s an active participant in the effort to save country music.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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