Album Review – Tim Bluhm’s “Sorta Surviving”
We could say that it’s a strange time in country music when someone like the front man of the California indie rock band The Mother Hips is releasing a record, and it’s 95% more country, a leagues better than most of what you’ll hear in the mainstream of country today. But in truth this is not a new phenomenon. From John Doe of X, to Mike Ness of Social Distortion, even back to Jerry Garcia and Gram Parsons in eras past, California rockers making country records is not an anomaly, it’s fertile ground for finding great country albums off the beaten path, better than many alternatives, and imbued with a uniqueness in style and perspective.
Tim Bluhm is not entirely a foreigner to the country realm. He once shared a record label with Johnny Cash when Rick Rubin first signed the country legend, and The Mother Hips were one of the bands Rubin paired Cash with in his successful quest to make Cash cool to an entirely new generation. Tim also toured with his once partner Nicki Bluhm as part of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, who did California country better than most. Tim Bluhm has released multiple solo records over the years, but this one is his first that delves into country in a dedicated manner, and does so with a deep respect for the music, and an authority with the material.
To capture the true country sound, Bluhm traveled from the San Francisco area to record in Johnny Cash’s famous Cash Cabin outside of Nashville. Produced by Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, Bluhm didn’t fool around while fielding a band that could bring the classic style he was looking to capture to life, including Jesse Aycock of Hard Working Americans, and bassist Dave Roe. This isn’t country by close approximation, or rendered through indie rock sensibilities. If Bluhm was going to make a country record, he was going to do it right, while still keeping some of those California country textures that make it unique and cool. This isn’t a country rock record, this is country record to the core.
It’s still fair to say that Sorta Surviving still sorta sounds like a traditional country record made by a rocker, meaning Tim Bluhm’s voice isn’t going to convey a lot of twang, and some of the songs feel more like interpretations of classic country song styles instead of inspired new entries into the country music canon. But Sorta Surviving impresses you at numerous turns, including the sumptuous and twangy country music heartbreaker, “Where I Parked My Mind,” the burning bluegrass number “Squeaky Wheel,” and the semi Gospel and smartly-written “Jesus Save A Singer.” Sorta Surviving embraces not just true country modes and instrumentation, but a variety of textures within that approach to keep it interesting.
Along with the seven original songs from the effort, Tim Bluhm also covers old friend Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” from 1958, and California native Merle Haggard’s famous “Kern River” that speak of geography Bluhm is familiar with. His cover of “Del Rio Dan” done by the Everly Brothers doesn’t quite capture the same coolness of the original track, which is a sweet little gem they recorded in 1972 after the world had forgotten about the duo, but it does help point your nose to a song worth remembering.
There’s plenty of storytelling on Sorta Surviving as well, from the Dust Bowl tale of “Raining Gravel,” to an ode to “Jimmy West,” who is the one brave enough to stand up to the schoolhouse bully.
In a time in country music where the mainstream has gone mad, and swaths of the musical epicenters in Texas and Tennessee are even saddled with sameness of perspective and their own silly trends that put style ahead of music, the West Coast is a smart place to look for something unique and entertaining in the country space. As Tim Bluhm proves on Sorta Surviving, those old California rockers can still lay down a country record just as good, if not better than many of their compadres back east.
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Purchase Sorta Surviving from Tim Bluhm
March 29, 2019 @ 9:08 am
this is good stuff. If Dave Schools is involved you know it’s gonna be cool. Making traditional country music is the new counterculture it seems.
March 29, 2019 @ 10:12 am
Very good album!
Not AOTY-good…but miles above all the Nashville crap.
Glad he is not using fake-twang or trying to sound like a seasoned honkytonk singer.
My highlights: “Where I Parked My Mind” & “I Still Miss Someone”.
My album on repeat right now: Nathan Seeckts – The Heart Of The City (Released 03/28…australian folk-country(-rock) singer/songwriter)
Luke Bryan – “Knockin’ Boots”
Blake Shelton – “God’s Country”
Midland – “Mr. Lonely”
Casey Donahew – “Southern Girl” (new album One Light Town will be released in late July)
March 29, 2019 @ 11:09 am
I went to college in California in the late 00’s which was quite an adjustment after growing up in Texas’ Cowtown. Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers were an extremely special part of my time out there because they brought a familiar style of music and honky tonk atmosphere to clubs all over SoCal even though her tunes and sound have a totally California twist. I remember being blown away by Tim’s subtle additions as he provided backing guitar and vocals and occasionally took the lead.
The most special night I had with the Gramblers was a show they headlined at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.. the band’s side project ‘Brokedown in Bakersfield’ opened, which featured almost all the same band members, just playing different instruments and not as pressured to perform a certain way. Plenty of Merle and Buck and Dwight tunes, a few tongue-in-cheek originals, and a whole lot of noodlin’ before a quick beer break and then the main event. Steve Adams played bass for the Gramblers as well as another favorite band of mine, Animal Liberation Orchestra, and he brought an awesome presence to every stage he graced.
It was always a shame to me that they never got bigger, but it meant that every show had the raw energy of a band that was hungry and ‘on the cusp,’ even though Tim had already achieved some success. Another amazing Gramblers show was one of the after-hours performances at Telluride Bluegrass Fest in maybe 2014.. they absolutely tore the walls down at whatever little bar we were in. I think their set was something like 12 AM – 2 AM. Hazy memories at best.
A long-winded comment to say that I love and appreciate the Bluhms’ musicianship and am very excited about this new album.
March 29, 2019 @ 11:21 am
Thanks for the story John.
March 29, 2019 @ 11:41 am
Been a long time fan of pretty much all of Tim Bluhm’s material growing up in Northern CA and coming of age with Tim’s band The Mother Hips. Going back for years he’s always had a penchant for country, particularly Haggard, which only led me to love The Hag myself. First time I caught The Mother Hips was opening for Johnny Cash in ’96 at the Fillmore in SF. Love the warmth and openness of this recording. Recommend listeners who have an interest in this material checking out The Hips Later Days and The Brokedown In Bakersfield album. Trigger, thanks for reviewing the album and keep the good work promoting so much great music!
March 30, 2019 @ 12:56 am
I like the sentiment of the album title so I might listen
March 31, 2019 @ 2:14 pm
I like the sound of the stuff that comes out of Cash Cabins. This sounds great.
April 1, 2019 @ 6:36 am
I listed to a couple songs and so far I like it. He sounds like a mix of Radney Foster and Don Williams. I’m looking forward to hearing more of the album tonight after work. Thanks for pointing me in Tim Bluhm’s direction!
April 1, 2019 @ 2:52 pm
Thanks for this review and introduction (for me) of Tim Bluhm. I listened to this album this past weekend and really enjoyed it. I need to dig deeper and listen to more of his stuff.
April 1, 2019 @ 11:07 pm
Wow. I went to Chico State back in the 90’s and I never, ever would have thought I would be reading about Mother Hips on a country music website. The music world really has gone nuts. I like the tracks though…
April 2, 2019 @ 12:23 am
Another good review, of an artist I admit I never knew about.
In fact, listening to the sample tracks, my personal rating might be a little higher.
April 5, 2019 @ 8:29 am
This is such a good album, thanks for the review! Listening now, and Tim’s respect for the form is evident, along with solid country songwriting. I never got into the Hips, but caught a Brokedown in Bakersfield show back in the day, which was a damn fine live band, obviously in love with Hag, Buck, and others. Not surprised that Tim made this album, but certainly pleased that he did.